'It could be Eight Nations': Georgia's plea for Euro reform
It was a remarkable result for the Lelos and has unsurprisingly fuelled further discord regarding Georgia’s inclusion in an expanded Six Nations or, at the very least, greater opportunities to play tier-one nations.
Following the match, however, key figures within the developing European rugby landscape indicated they didn’t expect any short-term changes to the status quo.
“I don’t think today’s result will change much in terms of if Georgia should maybe join the Six Nations,” Georgian coach Levan Maisashvili said in the post-match press conference. “I absolutely don’t think they are going to open the door on the back of one result.”
“We have seen in our own competitions the elite level of rugby that they produce and believe that for them, and the game, to grow further that more opportunities at this level must be a given,” he said earlier this week, “but we all know that, unfortunately, the way European and international rugby are currently structured does not allow this to happen in the near future.
“We will be the first at the table to see how we can progressively improve the game in all areas, obviously with a keen focus on Europe and the international teams that play in our continent.”
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Despite their impressive performance against Italy, the understandable, widely-held belief is that Georgia would still struggle to compete with the likes of England, France and Ireland on a week-in, week-out basis in the Six Nations.
Regardless, the only way that Georgia can continue to grow and one day perhaps challenge the best sides in the world is through more regular exposure to those teams.
Georgia’s clash with Italy marked the seventh time that the Lelos have squared off with a tier-one side since the 2019 Rugby World Cup. In contrast, the Azzurri played seven matches against tier-one opposition last year alone, and will match that number in 2022. Georgia’s number of games was also inflated due to the one-off Autumn Nations Cup played in 2020, a tournament which was only conceived due to the inability of the Southern Hemisphere sides to tour north that year due to the global pandemic.
Speaking exclusively to RugbyPass, Georgian captain Merab Sharikadze reiterated that the Lelos – and all tier-two sides – need to face more top opposition if World Rugby aspires to grow the sport.
“Everything is comparable. If you compare this to the old times, it’s better,” he said. “We get more opportunities to play. But it feels like we get these kinds of opportunities because we’ve been talking about this so much and now it’s like, ‘Okay, you’re going to play two games and be quiet, that’s enough’.
“But in reality, if you want to improve, two or three games a year is nothing compared to the teams [that top international sides] play. Every game they play [is against tier-one opposition] – maybe two or three games they play tier-two nations like us. So, if the World Rugby heads want us – not only Georgia, teams like us, tier-two nations – to improve, we have to have more regular games.”
As Sharikadze says, it’s not just Georgia who are desperate for more opportunities to play against stronger opposition. Although still not comparable to a tier-one nation’s fixture list, the Lelos have had a relatively meaty schedule for a tier-two team with just their seven matches since 2020.
Spain, who finished second in this year’s Rugby Europe Championship (a competition comprised of the six best teams in the continent outside of the Six Nations sides), haven’t played a tier-one side in over a decade (although they did get one match against Japan in 2013) while the likes of Romania and Portugal – who also faced off with Italy this year – generally tend to only play tier-one opposition at the Rugby World Cup.
“Rugby’s not only for 10 or 20 countries,” Sharikadze told RugbyPass. “Every country who plays rugby should be interested and we must be more open, we must drag everybody, all the other countries in to make them play. It’s one circle that is closed and then everybody else is staying outside of the circle. If this happens, rugby is never going to get as big as the other sports.”
While the long-term goal for Georgia is certainly to be involved in the Six Nations – whatever form it takes – the Lelos captain is hopeful that there could be a more sizeable restructuring of the calendar in the future to better incorporate Europe’s developing teams.
“I don’t think it must be Six Nations,” he said. “It could be Eight Nations or Seven Nations or something – they could work out something, 100 per cent they can.
“Take football and compare it to rugby. There is only one tournament in rugby anybody in the world has the opportunity to participate, that’s the World Cup. Except for that, you’re [in your regular competition] and you can’t go anywhere else.
“In football, there’s the Euro Championship … If you win something, then you get the chance to play against bigger teams. Georgia could play against Spain or France. But in rugby, it doesn’t happen like that. It must be more open.”
It’s not just at the test level where Sharikadze has frustrations, however.
In 2021-22, a new Georgian club side, the Black Lion, were involved in the inaugural season of Rugby Europe’s Super Cup competition, a tournament bringing together franchises from Georgia, Portugal, Spain, Belgium, Russia, Israel and the Netherlands.
While the Black Lion emerged victorious at the end of their campaign, there was no reward in the form of the chance to take on stronger opposition.
“We won our championship … but what happens next? Nothing. Next year, you play the same [teams],” Sharikadze said. “We don’t get the chance to play Challenge Cup. Obviously, we don’t get the chance to play Champions Cup. How disappointing is that?
“If you look at other sports, somebody wins something, they have the opportunity to play UEFA [Super] Cup or Champions Cup. But in rugby, it’s just such a shut circle; I really don’t understand.”
With four South African franchises joining the PRO14 last season to create the United Rugby Championship, there will also be South African representation in the Champions Cup in 2022-23. Additionally, the Cheetahs will take part in the Challenge Cup as an invitational side, despite not having to meet any on-field qualification requirements.
“You know that saying, ‘Nobody is too busy, it’s just about priorities’? Somebody can tell you, ‘The Challenge Cup has too many teams and we cannot afford to add any more teams’ and they tell you ‘no’, and then next year you see other teams.
“[The clubs from] South Africa are obviously very good teams, they deserve to be there as well. I’m not saying don’t put them in but work out something else so everybody could participate. But don’t tell me ‘no’ and then drag somebody [else] in because you think I’m low level or you think I’m not good enough.”
Prior to the 2019-20 season of European domestic rugby, it was possible for sides outside of the Six Nations to qualify for the Challenge Cup via various competitions, which saw the likes of Romania’s Lupii Bucuresti and Russia’s Yenisey-STM Krasnoyarsk involved. Those avenues have since shut, however, leaving second-tier European club sides in the lurch.
While the Lelo’s historic win over Italy is unlikely to immediately upset the apple cart, it has generated further discourse surrounding the future of rugby in Europe and sent a timely reminder to the powers that be that Georgia are quietly developing into a formidable force.
The more that fans show their interest in wider European rugby, the greater chance there is that Georgia – and other tier-two sides – will eventually be able to get a seat at the top table. The Lelo’s victory in Batumi has reignited the conversation – which can only be positive for the development of the game.
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