Georgia co-captain Merab Sharikadze will win his 100th cap for Georgia this Sunday when the Lelos begin their defence of the Rugby Europe Championship title against Germany in Dessau.

Sharikadze made his debut for the Lelos against Spain in March 2012 and has been a regular presence in their midfield ever since, as well as captaining the side in 51 of his 99 previous caps.

The 30-year-old will become the seventh Georgian player to earn 100 caps, all achieved in the last seven years.

Full-back Merab Kvirikashvili was the first member of the centurions’ club back in February 2017, also against Germany. Sharikadze scored in that 50-6 win and will be hoping for a similar outcome on his special occasion.

Sunday will also be a special day for two debutants, loose-head prop Giorgi Akhaladze and full-back Luka Tsirekidze.

Tsirekidze, a 19-year-old with the Georgian Black Lion club team, stands in for Rugby World Cup 2023 star Davit Niniashvili who will miss the first two matches of the Rugby Europe Championship due to a minor injury.

The six-time defending champions hand first starts to both tight-head Irakli Aptsiauri and scrum-half Mikheil Alania. Alania’s Aurillac team-mate Giorgi Kartvelishvili could also debut off the bench, at the age of 32, alongside fellow rookie replacement front-rower Giorgi Mamaiashvili, who is 12 years his junior.

The match against Germany is also Richard Cockerill’s first as Georgia head coach, and that is a theme running throughout the opening round of the Rugby Europe Championship with four of the eight teams having a change at the top.

Pablo Bouza begins his reign as Spain head coach away to the Netherlands on Saturday in the first of the four kick-offs, (13:15 local time, GMT+1). Spain will go in as favourites against a Dutch team that hasn’t played since March, but the Amsterdam encounter looks to be the most evenly poised of the lot.

Portugal aiming to go one better

The other of the two games on Saturday sees Belgium taking on Portugal, the surprise package of RWC 2023.

The hosts are hoping for a sell-out 5,000 crowd having taken the game away from Brussels to Stade Charles Tondreau in Mons.

Belgium U20 centre Theo Adaba is set for his first cap after being named on the Black Devils’ bench.

Portugal, whose one and only title at this level was back in 2003, will be hoping to go one better than last year when they were well beaten in the final by Georgia.

Tomás Appleton is still around to lead a side that contains a core group of players who did so well in France. Hooker Luka Begic and fly-half Hugo Aubry make their debuts for Portugal but the remainder of the Os Lobos starting XV went to RWC 2023.

It will be Daniel Hourcade’s first match in charge of Os Lobos following the decision of Patrice Lagisquet, and his immediate successor Sébastien Bertrank, to stand down.

“Georgia are the favourites, we struggled in the final a lot. But I think we are on the right path to reach the final again,” said Appleton, speaking on the eve of the Belgium match.

“I am speaking as if we reach the final, and I am not sure that is going to happen because we will have some tough matches before we can do that., But if we can keep the momentum from the World Cup, we have a chance to win this trophy.”

Poland hope to make progress

In addition to Germany against Georgia on Sunday, Poland welcome Romania to Gdynia.

Poland finished in last place in their first Rugby Europe Championship debut in 2023 and have never beaten Romania in 17 previous attempts.

However, forward Tom Fidler is confident they will have learnt from the experience and will be able to kick on in the months ahead.

“Last year was our first year in the Championship and we were all on a learning curve. Now the squad is shaping up well for the challenges that are to come in year two,” said Fidler.

“We know what is required at this level now and we have tweaked things that we do in training and have finely tuned things as we know more of what to expect from our opponents and from a steady run of games.

“We have a really good coaching set up led by Chris Hitt and Morgan Stoddart backed up by some excellent strength and conditioning coaches and it is all coming together well.

“We have a few new players coming in and the squad is looking sharp, so hopefully we can get the results and the rewards back from what we put into this year’s Championship because in some of the games last year I felt we were a bit unlucky and, in general, were quite frustrated to finish where we did.”

Romania have suffered record defeats in their last five matches, and in an attempt to revive their fortunes they have turned to former Portugal assistant coach David Gérard.

“Coming off a decent 2023 Championship (third place) and a disappointing World Cup, we are looking to showcase that we are better than our previous performances and are looking to do some great things this year,” said hooker Rob Irimescu, who made his debut for the Oaks in last year’s 67-27 win over Poland in Bucharest.

“The main goal is to win the Rugby Europe Championship. There is no point in playing or competing if that is not your main goal and it sincerely is for us. That being said, we also want to show improvement and that we are a force to be reckoned with going forward.

“The squad is coming together quite nicely. Last year was a bit stressful with everything going on, but this year we are focusing on increasing our cohesion and camaraderie during this campaign and the coaches and staff have done a lovely job in assisting us in doing so.”

The Rugby Europe Championship retains last year’s format with the top two teams in each of the four-team pools qualifying for the semi-finals and keeping their title hopes alive.

Stade Jean Bouin in Paris is the venue for this year’s final which will be played on Sunday 17 March, the day after France and England bring the curtain down on the Men’s Six Nations in Lyon.