Old values drive Georgia to new heights

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Tony Hawks, the comedian, wrote a very funny book called Playing the Moldovans at Tennis. If he ever considers a follow-up, Playing the Georgians at Rugby, it would be guaranteed a few laughs, and probably its share of tears.

The first-time World Cup qualifiers set off for Australia last Tuesday, having completed a fortnight's preparatory work in the south of France. Billeted in the quiet seaside resort of La Grande Motte, on a spit of land shooting out from Montpellier into the Mediterranean, the Georgians' get-together was unburdened by too many technological innovations. There was no sign of a scrummaging machine at the municipal sports ground which served as the training HQ.

"Scrum machine?" said Zaza Kassach-vili, vice-president and general factotum of the Georgian Rugby Union. "If we need to, we'll push against the back of the team bus." For Paliko Jimcheladze, Georgia's fly-half, whose first World Cup task will be to mark Jonny Wilkinson, there was not the luxury of an ice bath after training. Instead "Palix", as he is known, jumped in the sea and had his cool-down there, while on the esplanade French ladies tottered past with their poodles, and the merry-go-round went round.

Next weekend, Georgia will face England in Perth, and later in the tournament South Africa in Sydney. There could be no more definitive an illustration of the clash about to unfold between rugby's old and new worlds. Georgia, with their 2,000-year history of playing Lelo - a sort of inter-village game of polo crossed with army manoeuvres - reckon they are as old-world as anyone. But they only began playing rugby in 1959, when a French Armenian, Jako Haspekian, pitched up in Tbilisi with a ball and bags of enthusiasm.

The break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991 gave this country of five million people the chance to strike out on their own in sport. Rugby jostles for popularity with football and wrestling, and there have been crowds of up to 55,000 for World Cup qualifiers (unsurprisingly, when Russia were the opponents).

But popularity does not equal money. Standing on the crossroads between Europe and Asia, between the Black Sea and the Caspian, Georgia has been prey to incursions and insurrection. Civil war in the 1990s was not as brutal as in neighbouring Chechnya, but 10,000 lives were lost. Getting to the Rugby World Cup has been a hand-to-mouth experience.

So it is quite a jolt to go in 24 hours from meeting the England squad in their five-star hotel in Surrey to encountering Georgia here in their holiday- camp style accommodation. From Pennyhill Park to the penniless; rinsed-out training kit hangs from balconies of rooms without televisions. "What do you think of Jonny Wilkinson earning £1m this year?" I ask Jimcheladze, a 28-year-old family man trained in the law, who has earned a living wage in France since 1999 with Castres, Grenoble and now Aurillac. He raises his dark eyebrows, smiles and says: "If someone is going to pay him that money, I wish him luck. I'd take it, why shouldn't he?"

The Georgians have a few bones of contention. Three of their props have chosen to miss the World Cup and stay with their French clubs. The 30 players who are now in Oz were pressing Kassachvili for more money, having heard on the grapevine that Coca-Cola's Georgian branch had lobbed $70,000 into the kitty. "It was $10,000 from Coca-Cola, and $60,000 from eight private business persons," explained Kassachvili, who exports chocolate from Montpellier to eastern Europe. "Anyway, I have told the players they will get all the money we have, after costs have been paid. This whole adventure is about the players." Seven of the squad are unsure whether their French clubs will want them back after the adventure is over. "If the IRB gave us £1m a year for 10 years, maybe we could compete with England and New Zealand," said Kassachvili. He is not holding his breath.

Georgia believe they can win their other pool matches, against Samoa and Uruguay, and will not risk their captain and No 8, Ilia Zedginidze, against England after he suffered a facial injury in the solitary warm-up match against Italy, a 31-22 defeat. Kassachvili wrote to 35 other countries, asking for a match. Only Canada replied, and then Georgia could not afford to go. Jimcheladze, fresh from his dip and wearing the blue jersey he swapped with Italy's Ramiro Pez, said: "Jonny Wilkinson is the best player in the world. I hope to learn a few things. I'll be getting his shirt, but after the match, not during it."

Dinner is a chatty, noisy, barrack-room affair of fish soup, pork chop and pasta, cheese, yoghurt and fruit. Prop forwards wield the knife and fork with alacrity. There is the odd pot-belly and the muscle tone, or lack of it, belongs to what England's professionals would regard as a bygone era. But a couple of the grunt merchants of Georgia's front five play in France's top division, so they are no mugs.

Martin Johnson, no less, recalls the giant lock Ivane Nadiradze from Leicester's Heineken Cup matches against Béziers last season. Viktor Dideboulidze, one of only two players over the age of 30, says of Johnson: "He is a legend. It will be great to share a field with him."

Claude Saurel, Georgia's French coach, promises his men will compete with England in the one-to-one contact situations. They have already scored one victory, by winning the toss with Clive Woodward for choice of jersey: Georgia will play in English white. The next battle is for pride.

"Are England ready?" asks openside flanker Gregoire Yachvili, son of a French Grand Slam winner and brother to France's current reserve scrum-half Dmitri. He knows the answer. "There is no way we can beat England, but that is OK. We know that every one at home is supporting us. They will have the games on TV, and there are plenty of stories about us in the Georgian newspapers. We will do our best to make them proud."