The Lelos had already made sure of their place at Rugby World Cup 2023 as the Europe 1 qualifier, building an unassailable lead at the top of the combined 2021 and 2022 standings.
But as they prepared to welcome Spain to the Dinamo Arena on Sunday, they found themselves in an unfamiliar position: second in the 2022 Championship, behind Los Leones.
Spain, who needed to avoid defeat in Tbilisi to claim a maiden Rugby Europe Championship, took the lead briefly with an early try and remained within a score with three quarters of the match played.
However, the visitors tired in the closing stages and Georgia ran in four of their six tries from the 60th minute onwards to wrap up a fifth successive Rugby Europe Championship title and 11th in 12 attempts.
Here are the final standings after two campaigns worth of @rugby_europe action! @GeorgianRugby & @ferugby have qualified for #RWC2023 🎟— Rugby World Cup (@rugbyworldcup) March 21, 2022
@RugbyRomania will now complete in the Final Qualifying Tournament for a place at #RWC2023 ♻️ pic.twitter.com/vLqp90PPlP
Following six gruelling weeks of action, Los Leones can at least console themselves with a return to Rugby World Cup having booked their place at RWC 2023 as Europe 2.
Romania, meanwhile, could yet join Georgia and Spain in France after the Oaks pipped Portugal to third place in both the 2022 Championship and the combined standings, to secure their passage to the RWC 2023 Final Qualification Tournament in November.
This is how the action unfolded and what it meant for Rugby World Cup qualification…
Results from both the 2021 and 2022 Rugby Europe Championship counted towards RWC 2023 qualification, meaning Georgia had a 10-point lead in the race to secure one of the two automatic spots in France.
But they trailed Portugal with just over 20 minutes remaining of their opening match in Tbilisi as José Lima crossed for his side’s third try at the Mikheil Meskhi Stadium.
The visitors were denied a first win against the Lelos since 2005, though, when Tornike Jalagonia scored the hosts’ third try and Tedo Abzhandadze converted to level the score at 25-25.
Earlier in round one, Spain got their 2022 campaign off to a winning start as they claimed a second bonus-point victory against the Netherlands in less than two months.
Los Leones scored seven tries via seven different scorers as the Dutch were beaten 43-0 at Estadio Nacional Universidad Complutense in Madrid.
Victory was Spain’s third in a row in the Championship, having started the 2021 tournament with three straight losses, and lifted them above Portugal in the race for RWC 2023.
Romania finished the weekend level on points with Spain in the 2022 Rugby Europe Championship standings, and two ahead of them in the hunt for a place in France, following a 34-25 defeat of Russia at Stadionul National Arcul de Triumf.
Ovidiu Cojocaru scored two of his side’s four tries as the hosts claimed a vital bonus point.
Georgia put their stalemate against Portugal firmly behind them in Round Two as they ran in 12 tries to beat the Netherlands 72-10 in Amsterdam.
Flanker Otar Giorgadze scored a hat-trick, while winger Akaki Tabutsadze and hooker Chkoidze both helped themselves to a brace of tries.
Netherlands captain Dirk Danen scored his side’s only try, which was converted by David Weersma, who also added a penalty.
Victory ensured that the Lelos kept in touch with leaders Spain, and Romania, at the top of the early 2022 standings, while maintaining their eight-point cushion in RWC 2023 qualification.
Romania finished round two second in both the 2022 standings and the combined qualification table following a hard-fought 37-27 defeat of Portugal in Bucharest.
The Oaks found themselves 22-0 behind as Portugal scored three first-half tries, through José Lima, Rodrigo Marta and Vincent Pinto.
Dragons Ser crossed the whitewash on the stroke of half-time to give the hosts hope but Pinto scored his second try of the match to give the visitors a 27-13 lead with less than half an hour to go.
But, after Portugal scrum-half Samuel Marques was sent to the sin-bin, Romania began to dominate and ran in three tries, through Ovidiu Cojocaru, Alexandru Savin and Andre Gorin, to claim a momentous victory.
Spain were made to work hard to continue their own winning start to the 2022 Rugby Europe Championship in Sochi.
Vitaly Zhivatov appeared to have won the match for Russia with a 76th-minute try, converted by Ramil Gaslin. But there was still time for Santiago Ovejero to cross the whitewash to help give the visitors a 41-37 victory.
Having won six of their matches across the 2021 and 2022 Championships, Georgia were looking good for a place at RWC 2023.
Behind the Lelos, though, the race for the second automatic spot in France was heating up as Portugal secured a bonus-point win over the Netherlands and Spain beat Romania.
Pedro Bettencourt and Rafael Simoes each helped themselves to two of Portugal’s nine tries in the 59-3 victory in Lisbon, which maintained the hosts’ qualification hopes.
In Madrid, meanwhile, Spain took a big step towards booking a Rugby World Cup return as they secured a 38-21 victory against the Oaks.
Marco Pinto, Matthew Foulds, Fernando Martin Lopez and Alvar Gimeno each breached the Romanian defence as Los Leones wrapped up a bonus point before half-time.
Fred Quercy made sure of the win with around 20 minutes to go, meaning when Romania scored late on, through Hickley Vaovasa – his second of the match – and Marius Simionescu, it had no bearing on the result.
Ahead of round four, the Rugby World Cup Board confirmed the implications of World Rugby’s suspension of Russia and Belarus from all international competitions on the European qualification process for RWC 2023.
It was confirmed that in accordance with the RWC 2023 Qualification Terms of Participation, Russia’s remaining scheduled matches will be treated as abandoned for as long as Russia’s suspension from World Rugby’s membership continues. This meant that Georgia, the Netherlands and Portugal have been awarded four match points as winners of their outstanding matches against Russia.
The decision ensured that Georgia had mathematically qualified for RWC 2023, although they still needed a point from their remaining two matches to be guaranteed to do so as Europe 1.
They made sure of exactly that with a bonus-point 26-23 defeat of Romania in Bucharest. Akaki Tabutsadze dotted down his side’s fourth try to give the Lelos a 10-point lead with around six minutes to go.
Romanian replacement hooker Florin Bardasu crossed the whitewash with less than three minutes remaining to give his side hope, but Georgia were able to hold on.
Twenty-four hours later, Spain confirmed their return to Rugby World Cup for the first time since 1999 when they beat Portugal 33-28 in Madrid.
Jon Zabala, Fred Quercy and Marco Pinto (twice) all touched down for Los Leones before half-time as the hosts secured the win that gave them an unassailable cushion over both the visitors and Romania.
Victory also kept Spain in the hunt for a first ever Rugby Europe Championship title ahead of their final weekend meeting with Georgia.
Georgia and Spain met in Tbilisi on the final day of the 2022 Rugby Europe Championship with this season’s title on the line.
Los Leones had never previously beaten the Lelos in Georgia and hadn’t tasted victory against them anywhere in a decade, but they led 8-6 after Jordi Jorba’s first-half try.
Georgia hit back through Akaki Tabutsadze and Shalva Mamukashvili before half-time, however, when Santiago Ovejero went over for Spain in the 50th minute, the visitors’ deficit was just three points.
That was as close as Spain would get, though, as the hosts ran in four tries in the final 20 minutes to wrap up a fifth consecutive Championship title.
Earlier in the final round, Romania secured the victory they needed to confirm their place at the RWC 2023 Final Qualification Tournament in November.
The Oaks scored six tries by six different scorers in Amsterdam, two of which came in the final 10 minutes to add gloss to a victory that lifted them to third in the 2022 Championship standings.