As a crash-ball Georgian U18 centre, Nika Amashukeli once came into direct contact with some of the current stars of the Guinness Six Nations.
But rather than follow the likes of Maro Itoje in going all the way to the top of the game as a player, the 27-year-old has done it as a referee.
When he takes to the field at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin, for the game between Ireland and Italy on 27 February, Amashukeli will become the first person outside of the leading teams to referee in the Six Nations.
Coming from Georgia, where inclusion in the Six Nations is always a hot topic of debate, makes the appointment even more special.
“There has been a huge reaction since news of my appointment came out and I have been overwhelmed by people congratulating me and showing their support – in Georgia and abroad,” he said.
“I will try to justify the appointment and represent my country proudly in that brilliant tournament.
“As a child, it was a dream watching the Six Nations and live coverage wasn’t even available then, so we had to go down to our local club and hope that someone had put highlights of the matches on YouTube.
“For Georgians, the Six Nations is always a big moment, and being part of it is something very special, I can’t describe it.”
Blowing the whistle on his playing ambitions
Depending on selection, Amashukeli could end up refereeing Billy Burns in Round 3 of the 2022 Six Nations. The Ireland fly-half was a member of the England U18 team that put Georgia to the sword at the FIRA/AER Championships in 2012 when Amashukeli was still playing.
“Anthony Watson was due to come to that tournament as well as Maro Itoje and Billy Burns but he was taken by the U20s, he was that good,” explained Amashukeli. “I was very happy about it because I was due to play against him in the centres! They destroyed us, but it was a good experience, to see how good elite level players are.”
After suffering countless injuries, including a broken ankle and problems with his knee, it wasn’t long before Amashukeli decided to retire from playing – for his own safety and his mother’s peace of mind.
“I looked to find something else that wasn’t as physically demanding but would enable me to stay in rugby and refereeing was the best option to do that,” he said.
“I was quite young to take up the whistle but it kind of worked out well for me and step by step I came up to this level.”
Amashukeli made his test debut as a referee when Montenegro played Estonia in 2015, a far cry from the hothouse atmosphere that he’ll experience when he blows his whistle to get proceedings underway in Dublin in six weeks’ time.
“One half was refereed by another Georgian guy, Shota Tevzadze, who I have known since I was six and is a good friend of mine, and the other half by me, so that was an experience in itself,” he recalled.
“The Montenegro players came out wearing protective pads from their knees down to their ankles and weren’t very happy when I told them to remove them because it was against the laws of the game.
“It’s been an incredible journey to go from there to where I am now, especially as I am still relatively young for a referee.
“I appreciate the dedication and kindness people have shown to me, to help me grow as a referee, and I want to say a special thankyou to my wife, Maria. It is a tough job being with me because I am always away week after week but she is always very supportive.”
Making steady progress up the refereeing ladder
Having made his debut as a Heineken Champions Cup referee Amashukeli finished 2021 by taking charge of Ireland’s November international win against Japan. The Six Nations was the natural next step for him to take.
The Tbilisi-born referee says the journey wouldn’t have been possible without expert guidance from his Georgia RU referee manager, David McHugh and World Rugby Head of Match officials, Joel Jutge.
While most of their input has been positive, Amashukeli revealed how the playful McHugh couldn’t resist playing a trick on him.
“First of all, they decided to prank me. David said I had some Six Nations appointments but as an assistant. But then he showed me the appointments list and my name was down as the main referee and my jaw just dropped. I said, ‘are you joking, are you joking’? It was unbelievable because I didn’t expect it.
“I was told to keep it quiet which was probably the hardest part because, like I said earlier, any news about Georgia connected to the Six Nations is big news.
“I have been working with David for four years now, and it would have been impossible without his assistance and his work in the background. He is a great man and a great rugby guy to deal with. He is very professional and I am very happy the Georgian RU has contracted him for two years.
“Joel Jutge is also a brilliant guy and one of the best managers I have ever worked with: he is very approachable, very calm, and if you explain certain situations to him, he talks you through them accordingly. He has given me invaluable advice throughout my career so I am indebted to him as well.”