Georgia make history with victory over Italy in Batumi
It was on a balmy Sunday evening in Batumi that the Lelos made history, triumphing over Italy 25-19 to record their first-ever win over a tier-one side.
In the days leading up to the match, Georgia’s second-largest city had seen nary a drop of rain. The humidity, however, had been steadily climbing and on the afternoon of the game, just hours before kick-off, the sky let out a great roar, lightning flashed through the clouds and the heavens opened.
The downpour didn’t last long, but it was enough to add a film of dew to the surface at the Adjarabet Arena, the site of just the third-ever clash between Georgia and Italy.
It seems unfathomable that the sixth and seventh best sides in Europe have gone to battle so few times throughout their collective histories, but the Sunday night fixture represented the first time the Borjgalosnebi had taken to the field with their rivals since 2018, and just the second time since the turn of the century.
The fixture also marked the first occasion the two sides squared off in Georgia – and the inspired fans made it clear from the moment the two teams took the field in the warm-up that this would be no bipartisan crowd.
At the typically late time of 8pm – not long after many locals had finished lunch – the much-awaited match finally kicked off, and with every carry, every catch, every tackle, the almost 20,000-strong crowd brayed their team on.
The opening 10 minutes saw both sides testing the waters with a variety of tactical kicks, a couple of set-piece contests and one expansive play from the scrum that saw Georgia come close to outflanking their opposition on the left-hand flank.
While the Lelos couldn’t capitalise on the opportunity, they had announced their intentions for the evening – this was not the Georgian side of the early 2000s, the team that was so intent on scrummaging and mauling their way to victory. The Georgia of 2022 were going to throw everything they had at their more-fancied opposition, kitchen sink and all.
Their first real chance to strike came in the 11th minute when a penalty against Italy for some illegal work at the breakdown handed the home team an attacking lineout inside the 22 – and they took it with both hands.
After a dozen phases involving both backs and forwards, halfback Vasil Lobzhanidze dinked through an inch-perfect grubber into the in-goal and flying left wing Aleksander Todua was able to touch down the ball by the narrowest of margins.
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Flyhalf Tedo Abzhandadze couldn’t convert from out wide, but he made up for it just moments later on an exceptional counter-attack that saw Georgia climb to a 12-0 lead.
After some sparring from the restart, Italy eventually set an up-and-under Georgia’s way – and Georgia fullback Davit Niniashvili skipped around three defenders in an effort that matched Azurri fullback Ange Capuozzo’s run against Wales earlier in the year, then offloaded to Abzhandadze for the score. Abzhandadze converted, furthering the buffer, but missed an almost 55-metre penalty attempt on goal minutes later.
It was Italy who had the next chance for points, with stand-in first five Tommaso Allan kicking a penalty deep into the Georgian 22. The Azzurri wasted no time at the set-piece, delivering the pill to the backs to carry into the midfield. Spreading the ball back towards the sideline saw No 11 Edoardo Padovani break through some less than impressive defensive efforts from a handful of Lelos players and dive over the line to get the visiting side on the board.
Not long after the restart, the Azzurri again found themselves parked inside Georgia territory and a penalty chance at goal from right in front was too good for Italy to refuse, with Allan nailing the kick to take his side’s tally to 10.
Some excellent work from Georgian No 8 Beka Gorgadze after the kick-off saw Georgia earn a penalty within striking distance of the posts but Abzhandadze hit the uprights, and Italy were able to eventually relieve the pressure with a breakdown penalty of their own after a few phases of the home team being belted backwards with the ball.
Another infringement during Italy’s ensuing possession saw Allan nail a 40-metre kick from in front to hand his team their first lead of the game after almost 33 minutes of action – and it appeared that momentum was well and truly shifting.
Well, Niniashvili – the man whose swerving run had set up Georgia’s second try of the match – had other ideas.
A dangerous bomb from Allan saw three Italian players bearing down on the Lelos fullback but after flying high to take the kick, Niniashvili cantered down the park and came close to getting over the line himself. Seconds later, Abzhandadze was in under the posts for his second score of the night and with the regulation conversion, Georgia were back in front 19-13.
A knock-on and eventual penalty from the kick-off almost saw Italy immediately strike back through a driving maul but hooker Gianmarco Lucchesi couldn’t get the ball to the turf. There was no let-up to the pressure, however, with the Azzurri soon putting together multiple phases just out from the goal line. With the carries coming thick and fast – and so too the penalties – it seemed inevitable that Italy would score with seconds left to play in the half.
Somehow – against all odds – the Georgian defence held strong, with tighthead prop Beka Gigashvili smashing into an Italian breakdown set too close to the sideline and forcing the ball out of play.
It was 19-13 at the break – and the air in the stadium hung heavy with both tension and moisture.
Some Ange Capuozo magic at the beginning of the second spell – which saw the young superstar take a quick tap from a mark inside his 22 and set his teammates on a run that ended just outside the opposite 22 – again had Georgia under the pump. A knock-on from Tommaso Menoncello saw Georgia given the scrum, however, and the Lelos earned themselves a penalty at the set-piece to relieve the pressure.
That relief didn’t last long, however, with Italy setting up a lineout five metres out from the Lelo’s try line thanks to a pin-point penalty kick from Allan after an infringement from the home team.
Georgia held strong at the maul and the ensuing barrage from their opposition but they couldn’t maintain their endless back-to-back defensive efforts without creeping up over the offside line – no doubt a point of frustration for head coach Levan Maisashvili. The Lelos somehow avoided having any players sent to the bin, however, and with the Azzurri eventually settling for a simple shot on goal to creep within three points of their opposition, the Georgians may have actually come out of the opening exchanges of the second half with more confidence than the Azzurri.
While it had taken Italy almost 15 minutes of dominance to grab the three-pointer, Georgia were able to convert a penalty kick of their own almost immediately from the restart and claw back the six-point margin that stood at the beginning of the half.
The back-and-forth from earlier in the match returned as the clock ticked over and as the game entered the final 10 minutes, reserve Georgian scrumhalf Gela Aprasidze stepped up to kick a monstrous 60-metre penalty to take Georgia out to 25-16.
Italy weren’t dead in the water just yet, however, and the back-and-forth nature of the game continued when Allan nailed a three-pointer to bring the Azzurri back to within one converted try of their opposition – but Georgia weren’t about to let history slip through the hands.
With Aprasidze on target with his final kick of the game and the clock ticking on, Italy soon found themselves with too much to do and too little time to accomplish it.
The crowd roared louder and louder and when the hooter sounded to announce the end of regulation time, the scoreboard read Georgia 28, Italy 19.
History had been made. Georgia had won. And the supporters and players alike erupted.
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