The so-called ‘minnows’ were the toast of the recent Rugby World Cup, but it doesn’t take long for people to forget about them again.
The European Nations Cup has been going on slightly under the radar of the rugby world, so it gives me great pleasure to introduce this report by guest author, Andy Young, who normally writes for the Russia Blog Siberian Light.
Georgia, the team that came so close to humiliating Ireland in the World Cup, have confirmed their status as one of the top tier-2 rugby nations by winning the European Nations Cup – commonly known as the Six Nations B.
Their campaign culminated this weekend with a hard fought 18-12 victory over Russia on a typically snowy Siberian pitch.
Both teams went into the match tied at the top of the table, knowing that victory would give them the title. With everything at stake, tensions were high and two massive brawls set the tone for the match, including this free for all towards the end of the second half.
Once the snow had been cleared from the pitch, and the lines re-painted in a more visible red, Georgia stormed into a 10-0 early lead thanks to a (rather fortunate) converted try and penalty from fly-half Otar Barkalaia. But Russia hunkered down and fought their way back into the match – four penalties from the boot of Yuri Kushnariov brought them to within a point of Georgia. With 12 minutes to play Russia were only 13-12 behind and their momentum looked unstoppable.
But Georgia had other ideas. A lightning attack on the left (not easy on a snowy Siberian rugby pitch!) led to a David Katcharava try in the corner and, with just seven minutes to play, a precious six point lead.
Russia fought back hard – wave after wave of Russian forwards tried to smash their way over the Georgian try line in the final minutes. But Russia’s furious late assault was in vain as the more experienced and battle hardened Georgian team clung on to secure victory, and the title.
Two ambitious teams
In contrast to Romania, which seems to be on a gentle slide to rugby obscurity, Georgia and Russia are two of the rising stars of European rugby, both with ambitions to qualify for the next Rugby World Cup.
Despite their lack of funding relative to other nations, each country’s Rugby Union has invested heavily in outside expertise. Georgia are coached by Australian Tim Lane, and Russia by Frenchman Claude Saurel (although, oddly enough, Georgia have the closer links with France – a good chunk of their first team play their club rugby in France).
Georgia have already demonstrated their rapid improvement. Their performance in the Pool D (affectionately known as the Group of Death) at the 2007 Rugby World Cup, in which they came within a whisker of defeating Ireland, demonstrated that they were a well organised, talented team. Backed by tens of thousands of passionate fans back home – a 2002 match against Russia in Tbilisi attracted a crowd of 65,000 – they have an extremely solid base from which to build for the future and advance from their current position of 14th in the world rankings.
But Russia also are beginning to attract the rugby world’s attention. Their performances in this year’s European Nations Cup have propelled them to 17th in the world rankings, ahead of long established rugby playing countries like Japan and the United States. Rugby doesn’t attract the same level of attention in Russia as it does in Georgia, but their Union is built around a strong Siberian heartland, and the game is beginning to gain national exposure. This weekend’s match, for example, was broadcast nationwide, live on NTV-Sports. Unlike Georgia, Russia’s economy is booming and with a wealth of oligarchs looking to stoke their egos by investing in sports teams, rugby in Russia could be about to receive a massive boost.
The next test
Next up for both Georgia and Russia is a trip to Romania this June for the IRB Nations Cup, a tournament designed to give tier-2 nations the chance to play stronger teams than they would ordinarily meet in local competition.
Russia probably have the better chance of success in the tournament – they face the Emerging Springboks, Romania and Uruguay in their group stage matches. But Georgia will face the more interesting challenge – as well as taking on Uruguay and the Emerging Springboks, they’ll meet Italy A.
On current form, I wouldn’t bet too much against either side pulling off a shock or two in Romania. But, if not in Romania, then perhaps you should keep an eye out in New Zealand three years from now…