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The demand from a 'frustrated' Georgia as the Six Nations kicks off

By Liam Heagney
Georgia boss Levan Maisashvili (right) celebrates the November win over Wales with Beka Saginadze (Photo by Levan Verdzeuli/Getty Images)

Inspirational Georgia boss Levan Maisashvili doesn’t have a minute to lose these days. It’s not that he didn’t live life to the full before. He very much did. It’s just that every moment now feels so precious ever since he was miraculously restored to rude health following a frightening 2021 battle with covid in South Africa. By all accounts, he shouldn’t be alive and on a Zoom call with RugbyPass but he was, insightfully shooting the breeze ahead of his country’s upcoming Rugby Europe campaign.


Just 18 months ago he was given only a two per cent chance of survival when ventilated in a Johannesburg hospital with serious lung damage. He went on to lose 25kgs in a month-long induced coma before he remarkably defied the odds and started to recover from the illness contracted while touring with Georgia.

With that courageous battle brilliantly won and now past tense, Maisashvili chatted away amenably from Tbilisi from what essentially looked like a classroom rugby laboratory. His desk in the top left corner of the room was all business-like and behind him was a giant whiteboard jammed with jottings ahead of a year where the head coach wants to achieve like never before with Georgia.

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Winning the Rugby Europe title in the coming weeks would be no great shake. After all, the Georgians are a dab hand at pocketing that particular title – 14 times they have been champions, the last five arriving consecutively.

Instead, 2023 is all about the Rugby World Cup in France and Georgia performing there with the type of distinction that was beyond them last time out. Maisashvili was then an assistant to head coach Milton Haig but the campaign in Japan never ignited, the Eastern Europeans losing three of their four matches across an unmanageable 19-day schedule.

Only Uruguay were beaten on that ill-fated excursion but the devilish aspect of what now lies ahead on this year’s September/October calendar is a four-game schedule spread across 28 days that includes clashes with Australia, Fiji and Wales, the three teams that comfortably had their number four years ago in the Far East. As a barometer to accurately measure their progress in the time since then, the fixtures couldn’t have worked out any better.

All the more encouraging ahead of the finals, Georgia beat Wales in Cardiff just 10 weeks ago and a few months before that, they also took the scalp of Italy, another Six Nations country that bounced back to get the better of Australia in their recent Autumn Nations Series.


With two major scalps taken, a burning desire exists to take many more, starting with the Wallabies in Paris on September 9 before the show moves onto Toulouse, Bordeaux and Nantes for the Georgians who will surely feel their base camp at La Rochelle, home of the current Heineken Champions Cup holders, is another good omen feeding into the general feel-good factor surrounding them.

And yet, Maisashvili is fuming. Whereas the likes of Wales and Italy have every incentive to get better with the calibre of build-up fixtures pencilled in on their dance cards, starting with next weekend’s opening round in the Guinness Six Nations, Georgia are in the lurch despite their recent improvements.

True, they have an August 26 match scheduled versus Scotland at Murrayfield, but that’s the height of it at the minute. Opponents have yet to be secured for two other friendly dates in the lead-up to France 2023, while the revamped Rugby Europe format has rankled.

Before, all six participants played each other once in a league structure that mirrored the Six Nations. And now? The quality of the tournament has been diluted with its increase to eight teams split into two pools of four. Georgia have February matches at home to Germany and away to Netherlands and Spain, but there is no guarantee they will definitely get to meet both Romania and Portugal, their fellow World Cup finalists, in the two knockout rounds. That grates.


“If you are honest, it is nothing good for us because we always said that this year we needed more competitive games than we have,” explained Maisashvili. “If you watch before now, we had the opportunity to play against Romania, Portugal and Spain, also Russia before it was suspended.

“Now, we haven’t a chance to play against all the teams and it is games against more weak teams. We had five games and from five games, two or three were competitive because Portugal started to play well, Romania has a strong side, Spain are also competitive but now who knows?

Georgia dressing room celebration versus Wales
Georgia’s Giorgi Kveseladze takes a dressing room selfie after beating Wales (Photo by Levan Verdzeuli/Getty Images)

“We don’t know who we will play against in a semi-final and in the final that I hope we reach. I don’t think it will be good for us because it is a huge gap between the tier one countries and the competition we are playing in. For our game plan, for the intensity of our game, I don’t think it [the revamp] was a good idea.”

It’s not that Maisashvili is demanding that Georgia get into the Six Nations at the expense of one of its current teams. He would instead prefer an expansion of that tournament, something that outgoing Six Nations CEO Ben Morel suggested this past week wasn’t on the cards. “We never wanted anyone’s place in the Six Nations,” Maisashvili insisted.

“We are not talking that we need the place of Italy or Wales. We don’t need that. We need more good games and people have to start thinking about that. I don’t know. Maybe a Seven Nations. Eight Nations. If you remember 2020, it [the Autumn Nations Series] was an excellent tournament and it was very helpful for us.

“We have shown we can play good rugby, that we can play against tier one countries and also that we can beat them. It was first time [Italy], it was second time [Wales] and there will also be a next time but, of course, I’m frustrated. Everyone is talking about that but no one is doing anything. I don’t know the people who are responsible for that. But what is rugby? Is it a small group? Is it a game for 10 countries? What is it? We also need our part of participation, our challenge, our opportunities.

“It is a big self-confidence for the coaching staff, for players, for everyone – to beat the Welsh at the Principality Stadium, not a lot of teams can do that. Also, if you talk about Italy, there are one of the big teams who have a chance to participate in the Six Nations. Their team will go up and up and they also beat Wales at the Principality and also beat Australia.

“That is a very good, strong team with an excellent coach in Kieran Crowley who created history. Also, watch Benetton and how they play at URC. That is why for us, for Georgia, Italy was a historical game. That will help us carry on our development and our plans for World Cup. It was a good opportunity for us.

“There is a big trust and a big self-confidence but that is our biggest issue – if you want Georgia rugby to get better we need more games. Every time I’m talking about it it is the same answer from me: we need more games. More games, more competitive games, more strong teams, more tier one countries. It is so difficult, so difficult.

“Okay, everyone said, ‘Well done, Georgia, we are happy for you’. The big dogs have started to more appreciate Georgia but they are more prepared against us. We are not like a surprise for anyone. Everyone will prepare against us more carefully and they appreciate us but from November through to August, when we have a chance to play Scotland in Edinburgh, it [the lack of matches] is not normal.”

Georgia at least had the Black Lion franchise to sustain them somewhat over an eight-game winter. The professional club team, which Maisashvili also coaches, lifted the Super Cup trophy with a December 17 final win over Tel-Aviv Heat in Tbilisi. Eighteen of those locally-based players were named in the 34-strong Georgian squad for the Autumn Nations Series that culminated in the 13-12 ambush of Wales.

There were accompanied by nine Top 14-based players, one Premiership, one URC and five more from the Pro D2, the second-tier French league that Maisashvili suggested doesn’t match up to what the Black Lion now offers. “That franchise team, we created it so we don’t have to send players outside the country.

“We always had issues with domestic players getting game time with intensity, so that was why we created a professional franchise team. Now all those players are international-level players, fully professional players. If someone is good enough to play at Premiership or Top 14 level, at the better level of competition, of course it will be good for us but we don’t need our players who are playing with the national team to play at Pro D2 or Federale 1 competition.

“The Black Lion quality is now good and if players go, they have to go to a better competition like URC, like Top 14, like Premiership but not a lower competition. I don’t think Pro D2 has enough teams that are good enough for our international-level players. A couple of teams, yes, who want to go up, but the majority of teams are not professional enough.”

One place that Maisashvili himself tried to go to lately was back to South Africa. The Black Lion were rostered in the 2022 Currie Cup but the coach wasn’t allowed to travel because his illness the previous year meant he had overstayed his visa. “Because of that time I spent in hospital, I overstayed in South Africa,” he said.

“Last summer I tried to enter South Africa because there was a Currie Cup First Division tournament but they didn’t give me permission to enter the country. It was very disappointing for me but I will try and get there someday. I like the country.”

That’s quite the claim given it was so nearly his deathbed after he took ill during the two-Test series Georgia was playing versus the Springboks, a plan ultimately restricted to just one match due to a covid outbreak in respective squads shortly before South Africa took on the British and Irish Lions.

“I’m now fully healthy. My recovery was the best recovery for me. I was blessed with the best way to recover, doing the activities of a job that I like. Now, I am in full health,” beamed Maisashvili, breaking out in a smile before recalling the moment when he awoke from his South African coma.

“My reaction was, ‘Thank you, God. Thank you to the people who have prayed for me and who were fighting for my life, my family, my friends and the medics, the excellent people who I have a relationship with now.

“I’m a religious person, but maybe not enough. I should be much more but anyway, a person has to be blind to not see how I survived. There was only one reason why I survived and it was a decision of God. When things like that happen, it is a good sign from God. If you want to survive, if you want to be happy in your life, you have to live your life with roots.

“It’s like how build your habits, they will be your life. I try and be my best. Every time you remind yourself that if you want to be successful you have to live correctly, you have up live and do the correct things.”

The restoration of Maisashvili as Georgia boss following his health scare wasn’t the only rugby ‘boomerang’ of note in recent times. Eddie Jones and Warren Gatland are now back in charge of their respective old teams, Australia and Wales, but the Georgian isn’t dwelling much on the prospect of his own head-to-head duels against them in France.

“Yeah, it is interesting. It is a good opportunity for me but it is not about them, it’s about us [the Georgia team]. It’s about what we will do, not about them. But it is a good opportunity to play against excellent coaches. Eddie is a brilliant coach. Also Warren, a good coach, and it’s a good opportunity to play against those coaches but, as I mentioned, it’s more for us, not for them. I don’t want to worry about what they will do against us. I will worry about what we will do against them.”

Rugby has been part of Maisashvili’s life ever since he was a seven-year-old, quitting football after some rugby coaches visited his school and got him hooked on playing. Those roles were later reversed, the grown-up Maisashvili starting his coaching career tutoring small kids and now, all these years later, he is set to become a World Cup head coach.

“You cannot live without rugby. It became like a lifestyle, not only a sport. When I started coaching I started with small kids and now all these players are the biggest inspiration for me because every time they grow, I grow as a coach. They are always a big inspiration. Also, rugby is quite similar to our history, Georgian history.

“All our life was fighting against someone to survive, survive our country, survive our region. That is why it is a big inspiration. As a nation it is like our lifestyle, it’s very typical. That is why I like rugby and every Georgian, when they are coming on the field, they are trying to do their best.

“I have memories from that 2019 World Cup and so do the players who were at that tournament. To get more good results and more success we needed to have more teamwork, the coaches and players. Now we are more ready and bonded. That was the big lesson – if you want to achieve success, you have to be more bonded.”

Maisashvili’s Georgia sure sound like they are.


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Shaylen 3 hours ago
Ireland and South Africa share the same player development dilemma

These guys will be utility players Nick it cannot be helped because coaches cannot help themselves. Rassie looks at players like these and sees the ability to cover multiple positions without losing much. It allows the 6-2 or 7-1. He wont change his coaching style or strategy for one player. At provincial level players like these are indispensable. If there is an injury to your starting 12 but your back up 12 is a bit iffy then a coach is going to go with the back up 10 who is gold and who can play a good 12. Damian Willemse for the Springboks is an obvious case, for the Stormers its the same. Dobson plays him at 12 or 15, with Gelant in the team he plays 12 but if Gelant goes down he doesnt go for his back up 15, he just puts Willemse there. With Frawley its the same at international and provincial level. He just slots in wherever. Frans Steyn made a career out of it. He was much maligned though as a youngster as he never fully developed into any role. He then went to Japan and France to decide for himself what kind of player he was, put on muscle and retained his big boot, ran over players and booted the ball long and came back into the Springboks after about 3 years away and was then certain about how he wanted to play the game no matter what position. Coaches cannot help themselves because they only want what is best for their teams and that means putting your most talented players on even if it means you cause them some discomfort. Sometimes players need to decide how they want to play the game and then adapt that to every position and let the coach decide how they want to use them.

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Jon 8 hours ago
Ireland and South Africa share the same player development dilemma

I think the main problem here is the structure of both countries make up. They are going to have very similar.. obstacles(not problems). It will just be part of the evolution of their rugby and they’ll need to find a way to make this versatility more advantageous than specialization. I think South Africa are well on the way to that end already, but Ireland are more likely to have a hierarchical approach and move players around the provinces. Sopoaga is going to be more than good enough to look up one of those available positions for more than a few years I believe though. Morgan would definitely be a more long term outlook. Sacha to me has the natural footwork of a second five. Not everything is about winning, if a team has 3 players that want to play 10s just give them all a good go even if its to the detriment of everyone, this is also about dreams of the players, not just the fans. This is exactly how it would be in an amateur club setting. Ultimately some players just aren’t suited to any one position. The example was of a guy that had size and speed, enough pace to burn, power to drive, and speed to kick and pass long, but just not much else when it came to actual rugby (that matched it). New Zealand has it’s own example with Jordie Barrett and probably shows what Reece Hodge could have been if the game in Australia had any administration. Despite the bigger abundance of talent in NZ, Jordie was provided with consistent time as a fullback, before being ushered in as a second five. Possibly this was due to his blood, and another might not have been as fortunate, but it is what it was, a complete contrast to how Hodge was used in Australia, were he could have had any position he wanted. When it comes down to it though, much like these young fellas, it will be about what they want, and I think you’ll find they’ll be like Hodge and just want to be as valuable to the team as they can and play wherever. It’s not like 63 International Cap is a hard thing to live with as a result of that decision!

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