Georgia gain a place in Sydney's heart

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There have been a couple of defining moments in the World Cup: Will Greenwood's try that broke South Africa, and David Dadunashvili's try that broke the sound barrier. In Sydney, more people are aware that David plays hooker for Georgia than that Will plays centre for England.

When Cathy Freeman won gold in the Olympic Games here three years ago, the noise might just have exceeded the eruption that greeted Georgia's first try in the World Cup.

Making their debut in the tournament, Georgia had conceded 84 points to England and 46 to Samoa, scoring 15 points in reply. On Friday night at Aussie Stadium, 34,308 people, in a complex with a capacity of 40,000, gave Georgia a standing ovation. That was before the kick-off in their Group C match against South Africa. They gave them another at half- time, and they raised the roof at the end of an epic contest.

The Springboks, unrecognisable from the team that had frightened the life out of England the week before, won 46-19. Few will remember the scoreline - none will forget the occasion. The passionate support for Georgia was overwhelming, transforming what should have been another one-sided affair into an extraordinary spectacle.

"Georgian rugby is a baby that is growing,'' Zara Kassachvili, vice-president, said. "We have a father who is Georgian, a mother who is French and now an Australian godfather. Next time we'll have more players and a more beautiful team.''

The public here has taken great pleasure in adopting a country that has just 13 clubs, 300 players. Not only is it a natural affection for the underdog, but an appreciation of the spirit in which the Georgians have entered the tournament. They have enjoyed themselves. They have not locked themselves away in training sessions, but have been fraternising with the locals in bars and clubs. The Aussies cannot get enough of them. Georgia bid a fond farewell on Tuesday when they play Uruguay atAussie Stadium and more than 30,000 tickets have been sold. There will not be a dry eye in the house.

For the South Africans, a punishing schedule awaits. They play Samoa in Brisbane in their final pool match next Saturday, after which they expect to meet New Zealand in the quarter-finals. Before looking forward to that, they can't forget the defeat to England that condemned to near-impossibility any hope of regaining the cup they won on home ground eight years ago. "We know we missed a really big opportunity to take England,'' Corne Krige, the Springboks captain, said. "But they stuck to their guns when it really mattered.''

One of the biggest decisions facing the Springboks, whose pack worked brilliantly against England, is whether or not to retain Louis Koen at stand-off. After missing penalty after penalty and having a kick charged down which led to the only try of the match, Koen was deemed to be the villain of the piece, but his overall game was sound.

Against Georgia, the Boks played the 20-year-old Derick Hougaard, who started a Test for the first time. He contributed 16 points, converting four of the seven tries, one of which he scored himself. In possession on 43 occasions, he passed on 30 of them, kicked on eight and ran with the ball five times.

The extraordinary thing is that neither wing, Breyton Paulse and Stefan Terblanche, who are two of South Africa's leading try-scorers, crossed the line. You could have named your own odds against that happening.

"Derick played well,'' Rudolf Straeuli, the South African coach, said. "We'll have to wait and see. It wasn't the easiest of matches. We lost a bit of our structure and gave away silly penalties. All credit to the Georgians. They defended like Trojans.''

That's one way of putting it. Georgia - most of their players compete in France - only gained full membership of the International Board in 1992, three years after perestroika and the break-up of the USSR into independent nations. In the final qualifying leg for the World Cup, they beat Russia 17-13 in Tbilisi.

They may or may not have been dancing in the streets of the Georgian capital on Friday night, but they certainly were in Sydney.