By Jon Newcombe
The Georgian Rugby Union (GRU) is expecting to report record participation numbers later this year, thanks in part to successfully staging last year’s IRB Junior World Rugby Trophy.
Official figures are yet to be released, but Lasha Khurtsidze, Tournament Director of JWRT 2011 and the current Head of International Public Relations and High Performance at GRU, says he has every reason to be optimistic.
“Hosting the Junior World Rugby Trophy has helped rugby in our country on a number of levels,” he said.
“More and more people come and watch rugby, and more and more people are now playing rugby.
“We don’t have the exact numbers to hand yet because the yearly cycle on which the figures are based has obviously not finished. But it is fair to say that we’ve nearly got more people willing to play than we can accommodate. We need more qualified coaches and trained referees to cater for the increase in demand.
“Lots of new clubs have started up, and as a result the First Division domestic club competition has increased from being a 10-team league to 16 teams spread throughout the country.”
JWRT 2011 was the first International Rugby Board tournament to be staged in rugby-mad Georgia, and the event was met with universal approval.
Two brand new, purpose-built rugby stadiums provided venues for the 16 matches, and they were either full or close to capacity on each occasion, with every ticket printed being sold.
With eight matches broadcast live by Georgian National TV - unprecedented coverage for a JWRT host broadcaster - rugby reached out and engaged more people. This included a group of young offenders who, it is hoped, will be able to get their lives back on track after being introduced to the disciplines of the sport.
Leaving a lasting legacy
During last year’s tournament participating teams visited the Avchala Juvenile Colony, where youngsters between 14 and 18 years are detained - mostly for petty crime. This was a joint-venture between the GRU, the local Probation Ministry and UNICEF.
“With the help of our partners we were able to send coaches and players from visiting teams into the Colony to introduce them to rugby,” Khurtsidze said.
“It was a really good event, and hopefully it helped to show the boys how a sport such as rugby can be used to turn your life around.
“Some of the boys have been ‘adopted’ in a mentoring capacity by the teams that took part. This is another good legacy to come from the Junior Rugby World Trophy.”
Reaching for the final
In last year’s event Georgia matched the third-place finish that they achieved in the inaugural JWRT in 2008, and Under 20 Head Coach Ian Smith believes his current group of players has the ability to improve on that standing in Salt Lake City.
He explained: “We play Canada, Zimbabwe and Georgia over an eight-day period, which are all going to be difficult games in their own right.
“But the main thing I am concerned with is how we operate.
“If you look at our game against England in Madrid last March, the boys got a little bit too emotional and over anxious.
“It is important we keep calm and do the things that we can control well rather than worry too much about the opposition.
“I think we have the ability to go better than third. It just depends on how much we can improve technically and tactically between now and then. For them, it’s a case of learning when to do the right thing at the right time.
“But I can’t fault the commitment of the boys, and their physicality is obviously an asset - they just love running into people. Skill-wise they are pretty good as well.”
With the Georgian senior national team performing favourably at the last two Rugby World Cups, and more recently beating great rivals, Russia, there are a number of role models for the ‘Young Lelos’ to aspire to.
Smith said: “Many of the senior internationals play professionally in France, but when the likes of Mamuka Gorgodze (known throughout the world as ‘Godzilla’) and Davit Zirakashvili come back to Georgia for a squad announcement they are feted.
“To the Under 19s and Under 20s, who I work with, they are heroes and want to emulate what they have achieved.”
Having already made four appearances for his country, captain and first-choice centre Merab Sharikadze is a little further down the line in that respect than most of his contemporaries.
“He was my captain with the Under 19s in Romania back in October and is a terrific young man,” former Scotland flanker Smith said.
“He has great values in terms of honesty, integrity and his work-rate, and he is highly respected by all the coaches and players.
“Obviously, he is one of our better players too, as he’s already made the step up and played in the European Nations Cup.”