Georgia lead the fight against absent players

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The Independent Online

David Khinchagishvili is an unlikely candidate for a cause célèbre. The 21-year-old prop forward from Georgia is unheard of outside the former Soviet state, who have qualified for the Rugby World Cup for the first time, or his French club side, Béziers. Yet Khinchagishvili is set to be the subject of the first legal action in the great World Cup walkout.

A dozen players from Georgia, Samoa, Fiji, Canada and Namibia have chosen to stay with their clubs in Europe and South Africa rather than represent their national teams in Australia next month. They are in breach of the International Rugby Board's Regulation Nine, which deals with the availability of players: if a player is called up by his country, he must go. Wasps' Samoan hooker, Trevor Leota, refused on the basis that it would cost him £25,000 to represent an impoverished union. Two Fijians - Simon Raiwalui at Saracens and Rotherham's Jacob Rauluni - "retired" from international rugby in order to play on in the Zurich Premiership. No club have yet admitted it, but it is clear that a player who snubs a domestic contract to go to the World Cup is signing a professional suicide note.

Georgia, though lacking financial muscle, are prepared to fight their corner in the courts. Facing the daunting task of taking on England in Perth on 12 October, they called up two props from Béziers - Khinchagishvili and Tariel Ratianidze - and another from Montpellier, Mamouka Magrakvelidze. Having been refused, the Georgians invoked the clause in Regulation Nine which requires a player to stand down from club duty during the period he should have been with the national team. The IRB were informed and the French Rugby Federation (FFR), whose first responsibility it is to enforce the regulations, last week demanded their national league take disciplinary action against the clubs.

Khinchagishvili appeared in each of Béziers' first four matches this season, and Ratianidze in three, and the pair were in the squad to face Agen on Friday night. In some ways, it is a neighbours' tiff. Georgia's World Cup training camp is near Montpellier, half an hour's drive from Béziers. Zaza Kassachvili, the vice-president of the Georgian Rugby Union who is handling the dispute, lives and works in Montpellier. The sanctions faced by Béziers include fines, suspensions and loss of points.

As the governing body, the IRB must act, says Kassachvili, in defence of regulations which constitute the very fabric of the game. "The clubs have provoked the situation," said Kassachvili. "The next stage for us is to go to an advocate, to get legal advice. The Regulation Nine is clear: you cannot play for the club during this period. If we close our eyes to it once, we are finished. These players are free persons, but the tax they have to pay is not to play while the national team are playing."

Khinchagishvili earns €1,500 a month (about £1,000) at Béziers. Georgia have promised each of their players a daily allowance of €25 for 60 days of training and competing in the World Cup. "Ten Georgian players have lost money to play in the World Cup," said Kassachvili. "David Khinchagishvili wanted to go to France, to progress, and the Georgian Union helped him do it. But now he has promised his club coach that he won't come to the World Cup. This is unacceptable. It's like asking this boy to kill his mother. You can't put money above rugby, above your parents. If Khinchagishvili doesn't come, he cannot even call himself a rugby player."

Regulation 9.2 prohibits clubs from imposing "conditions on a player's availability" for their national team. Wasps admit they have agreed reduced terms with their five World Cup participants to reflect their absence. But the England contingent - Lawrence Dallaglio, Stuart Abbott, Josh Lewsey and Joe Worsley - are on £33,000 a man from the RFU to be in Australia; £66,000 each if they win the cup. Topped up by individual sponsorship, they can cope with the drop in club earnings.

"I don't want money or pity," said Kassachvili, "I want respect for my players. We have a choice - either we fight or we capitulate. We can stay in the spirit of Regulation Nine, or maybe I can ask the IRB to pay for the right to see my players in the World Cup."