“World-class” Davit Niniashvili and the vastly experienced scrum-half Vasil Lobzhanidze will make their first appearances of the year for Georgia on Saturday as the Lelos take on Romania for a place in the Men's Rugby Europe Championship 2024 final.

Niniashvili and Lobzhanidze haven’t played since the game against Wales at Rugby World Cup 2023 in October but both have been named in the starting XV for the first of the two semi-finals at the Mikheil Meskhi Stadium in Tbilisi.

Head coach Richard Cockerill finally gets a chance to see Niniashvili in action after a knee injury sidelined the 21-year-old for the first three rounds of the tournament. He has been named on the left wing in a team showing five changes to the one that dispatched Spain 38-3 a fortnight ago.

“He is a world-class player. He plays for Lyon in the Top 14 and he’s a standout player in the Top 14, and that’s one of the strongest competitions in the world,” Cockerill said about the Georgian star shortly after taking charge of the team.

Lobzhanidze has been fit and available for selection, but Cockerill opted to give young nines, Mikheil Alania and Tengiz Peranidze, the chance to gain more experience in the first three rounds.

Georgia won by a record score and margin when the sides last met on the eve of RWC 2023, winning 56-6, and are overwhelming favourites to make the final again and continue their remarkable record in the competition.

The six-time defending champions are unbeaten in 31 matches in the Rugby Europe Championship, with Romania the last team to beat them back in 2017.

Attack versus defence

As Georgia start the weekend seven places and 10.10 points ahead of the Oaks in the World Rugby Men’s Rankings powered by Capgemini, they cannot improve on 13th place this weekend.

Romania are not guaranteed to climb the rankings, either, even if they become the first team to beat Georgia in the Rugby Europe Men’s Championship in seven years, unless Spain also lose to Portugal in the second semi-final in Lisbon on Sunday.

The home team has prevailed in the previous five fixtures, with Portugal coming out on top when they last met Spain in the semi-finals of Rugby Europe Championship 2023, winning 27-10.

With the lowest share of possession in the tournament, Spain have spent a lot of time on the back foot, and as a result, they have made more tackles than any other team (558), completing 89 per cent of them, and have conceded the most penalties (44).

As the competition’s top-scoring team, and known for their attacking style, Portugal will look to put Los Leones under pressure from the off and make it six home test wins on the trot.

In exciting young half-backs, Hugo Camacho and Hugo Aubry, Portugal possess the joint-leading try scorer and top points scorer in the competition. 

For Spain, a fast start is important as three-quarters of their points in this Championship have been scored in the first half while they have tended to be vulnerable to conceding points after the break.

The latest instalment in this fierce Iberian rivalry can be watched live on RugbyPass TV >>

Dutch U20 hero primed for debut

With just seven places and 5.70 rating points separating the teams involved in the fifth-place semi-finals – Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Poland – the results could have a significant impact on the rankings, especially if they go against the form book.

The first of the matches is in Amsterdam as the Netherlands take on Poland for the first time since the Rugby Europe Trophy tie in 2022, which ended 7-6 to the Dutch.

Siem Noorman scored the match-winner that day and has been in prolific form this year, too, scoring a try and setting up countless opportunities with his elusive running. The winger has beaten the second-most defenders in the competition to date (14).

The Dutch backline also includes Rugby Europe U20 Championship 2023-winning captain Vikas Meijer – but at fly-half instead of inside centre.

Meanwhile, Brive centre/wing Kaj Verhoorn is set to make his test debut after being named on the bench. The 20-year-old scored the match-winning try for the Netherlands in the U20s final, which secured the Netherlands a place in the World Rugby U20 Trophy for the first time.

Uncapped duo start for Poland

Poland have made six changes to their starting XV as well as a change of position for Peter Hudson-Kowalewicz, who moves from fly-half to inside-centre.

Hudson-Kowalewicz has played in every minute of the campaign so far and he brings some familiarity to what is an otherwise much-changed backline.

Poland are captained again at scrum-half by Mateusz Plichta but he has a new half-back partner in 19-year-old debutant Mateusz Kolas following Hudson-Kowalewicz’s move into midfield.

Wing Bartlomiej Sadowski will also make his test bow, while Poland U20 centre Alexander Pama is primed to win his first cap off the bench.

In terms of the rankings, the Dutch can only improve on 28th place if they win and Belgium lose to Germany, a scenario which would see them gain one place. 

However, defeat – depending on the margin and the result in Waterloo – could see the Netherlands drop as low as 32nd. They have not been outside the top 30 since November 2017.

Poland’s position could climb or fall by a couple of places depending on the outcome.

Continuity the theme for Belgium 

Belgium’s starting XV for their match against Germany has a settled look with just the two changes from the one that took to the field against Poland a fortnight ago.

They come at blindside flanker with the inclusion of Lucas Rassinfosse and at full-back, where Simeon Soenen replaces Jordan Gott, who drops to the bench. He is joined in the replacements by uncapped 21-year-old Nestor Jeandrain.

Second-row Hassan Rayan captains Germany for the first time on the occasion of his 17th cap. Rayan was on the bench for the defeat to the Netherlands a fortnight ago but will lead a team showing five personnel and two positional changes.

As Belgium can only pick up a maximum of 0.28 points for beating Germany in Waterloo, the Black Devils can't improve on their present position of 28th.

However, defeat to Germany could see Belgium fall as low as 30th depending on the margin and the result of the Netherlands v Poland game.

By contrast, a victorious Germany will become the higher-ranked of the two nations with a return to the top 30 for the first time since last March.

A four-place gain to 28th is possible if they win by more than 15 points and Poland upset the Netherlands in Amsterdam.