Georgia and Fiji may be worlds apart geographically and in terms of culture and language and even in their style of play, but both are rugby-mad countries that are fast becoming keen rivals.
Having not faced each other at any level until 2012, Georgia and Fiji will meet for the fifth time in five years at the Estadio El Deleite in Spain this Saturday, and it is a match you can watch right here on world.rugby, kick-off 14:30 GMT.
While the first match between the teams took place in 2012, the real rivalry began in 2016 when the Lelos toured the Pacific Islands for the first time, and left for home unbeaten.
Coming on the back of their most successful Rugby World Cup campaign the year before, when they achieved automatic qualification for RWC 2019 through a third-place pool finish at England 2015, it was another significant step forward for the eastern Europeans in their evolution as a team to be respected by all and sundry, not just their direct opponents in the Rugby Europe Championship.
Georgia’s squad of 2016 saved their best until last as a draw with Samoa was followed by a narrow 23-20 win over Tonga and then a 14-3 win over the leading Pacific nation, Fiji.
“It was a very memorable tour for me,” recalled Georgia’s try-scorer, fly-half Lasha Khmaladze.
“It was the first time for Georgia to play against them on the Islands and it was a very open and dynamic game in which we showed what we can do.
“We gained a lot of confidence from that unbeaten tour.”
Fiji have held the upper hand
Georgia haven’t managed to back up the win since, losing heavily to Fiji at Rugby World Cup 2019 (45-10) and again (38-24) in the Autumn Nations Cup seventh-place play-off in December last year.
“Fiji had a very strong team at the 2019 World Cup. At first, it was a fairly even game but then a few wrong decisions broke the team and we didn’t play as we’d hoped to and the result went against us,” recalled the Tbilisi-born veteran.
In the last Murrayfield encounter the Lelos were up against it from the word go, conceding three tries inside the first quarter. But they showed the battling spirit in-bred in Georgians to dust themselves down and score three tries in an entertaining game that defied the dreadful conditions in the Scottish capital.
Rugby World Cup reunion on the cards
As runaway leaders in the overall RWC 2023 European qualifier points table, Georgia look well set to claim the Europe 1 spot at the tournament in France in two years’ time, which would see them join Fiji – as well as Wales, Australia and the Final Tournament Qualifier – in Pool C.
“We are currently the Europe 1 team, but we have to win another Championship to play at the upcoming World Cup,” said Khmaladze.
“I hope that that will happen, the group we go into isn’t important for us. Although this time we will be much more experienced and we hope that interesting matches will be waiting for us in 2023.
“We will try to perform at our best as a team and individually.”
Century of caps in sight
At 33 years of age, Khmaladze has more good years behind him than ahead of him, and recent World Rugby U20 Championship graduate Tedo Abzhandadze is slowly but surely taking over the reins at 10.
However, with 87 caps to his name – and an unusual dietary supplement helping to keep him young and fresh – Khmaladze hasn’t ruled out joining David Kacharava, Merab Kvirikashvili and Giorgi Chkhaidze in the Lelos’ centurion’s club.
So how has he stayed at the top of his game for so long? “Commitment, professionalism, stability, diligence, healthy lifestyle and bee’s milk (royal jelly)!” he revealed.
While not one to wax lyrical about his own achievements in the game, the three-time Rugby World Cup competitor would obviously love to make it to the special 100-cap milestone as it would mean, “more experience, more time in the Georgian national team, more time with my friends and more pleasant memories.”
How pleasant Khmaladze’s memories are of this Saturday’s match remain to be seen but the quest for victory is the be-all and end-all for one of Georgia’s longest servants.