Swing Lelo: Georgia and Britain’s shared rugby history

For Georgia to have a sporting team ranked 12th in the world is an achievement to be proud of. For that sport to be rugby union, a game born in England’s elite schools, and kept within the British Commonwealth for over a century, makes it an even more outlandish feat. The rise of Georgian rugby is one of the great stories in European sport over the last 20 years, with the national team going from unknowns to World Cup mainstays. Along the way, Georgia may not have battled the British nations on the pitch as often as it hoped to, but the countries’ rugby histories have been closely linked in other ways.

From graft to Gorgodze: Evolution and revolution in Georgian rugby

While rugby has been played in Britain since the 1820s, and the first British championships were held in 1883, the game didn’t arrive in Georgia until the late 1950s. It was brought by a Frenchman of Armenian descent, Jacques Haspekian. Haspekian was a teacher who taught the game to his students in Tbilisi, before later helping to set up the republic’s first rugby clubs. The Georgian Rugby Federation was established in 1964; within a couple of years, Georgians made up half of the USSR’s rugby side.

It was no coincidence that Georgians picked up the rules to rugby so quickly. The game was similar to the bruising sport of Lelo burti, which had been played in Georgia for thousands of years. In Lelo burti – ‘Fieldball’ in Georgian – a heavy round ball is placed in the central point between two villages, and the men from each village have to carry it back onto their land in any way possible, bringing opponents to the ground with full body tackles, as in rugby. The sport was first played in the region of Guria in western Georgia, where in past centuries the district’s priest would act as the referee, and bless the ball before throwing it to the players. The ball could weigh seven kilogrammes or more, and was said to represent the sun; the winning village would receive the better harvest. The game is still occasionally played today in parts of Georgia.

In September 1989, thirty years after Jacques Haspekian brought rugby to Georgia, a national rugby team played its first official Test match. The Lelos (as Georgia’s team had become known, after the name of the ‘try line’ in Lelo burti) beat Zimbabwe 16-3 in Kutaisi, with the centre Oleg Liparteliani captaining the side, and fly-half David Dzagnidze scoring all of the points. In April 1990 the two countries played a return series in Zimbabwe; Georgia lost the first Test 22-16 and won the second 26-10. After the country regained its independence in 1991 it became a member of the International Rugby Board in 1992. But the turbulent 1990s were as draining for Georgia’s rugby teams as they were for the nation itself. By the middle of the decade, while the best rugby players in Europe and the Southern Hemisphere were preparing to become full-time professionals for the first time, the Georgian national team had only two spare balls. Instead of using specially-made bags to practice tackling in training, the players threw themselves at denim sacks that the coach’s wife had filled with rubber. Forwards in Georgia trained for scrums by pushing old Soviet tractors. Against this backdrop, Georgia came painfully close to reaching the 1999 World Cup in Wales, losing 23-27 to Romania in European qualification.

After a lot of much-needed investment, in 2003 The Lelos reached their first World Cup, in Australia. In their first match they went up against the England team that would go on to win the tournament, and were pummelled 84-6. The Georgian side, led by number 8 Ilia Zedginidze, went on to lose all their games and finish bottom of their group, but the prop David Dadunashvili scored the country’s first World Cup try, in a bad-tempered match with South Africa.

Still led by Zedginidze, Georgia qualified again for the 2007 World Cup in France. With many of the squad already playing in the host country – and battle-hardened by the tough lower French leagues – they earned their first victory, beating Namibia 30-0. A few days earlier the team had come within a try of one of the biggest shocks in rugby history in a 14-10 defeat to Ireland. Four years later at the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand, The Lelos, captained by scrum-half Irakli Abuseridze, faced Scotland and England in the same week. They lost both matches heavily, but bounced back to beat Romania 25-9, with a try by a young back row forward called Mamuka Gorgodze.

In the 2015 tournament, held in Britain, Georgia beat Tonga (17-10) and Namibia (17-16) to finish third in their five-team group. Gorgodze was now the team’s captain; known as “Gorgodzilla” in France, where he played for Montpellier and Toulon, he scored tries in both victories, and was named man of the match in Georgia’s game against New Zealand. The 2019 World Cup in Japan brought another win, 33-7 against Uruguay, and a heavy 43-14 loss to Wales.

Georgia haven’t yet managed to reach the knockout stages of a World Cup. But one international record does belong to them: in 2015 nineteen-year-old fly-half Vasil Lobzhanidze became the youngest player ever to play at a Rugby World Cup. Lobzhanidze has since overtaken Wales’s George North to be the youngest player to reach 50 international caps.

Sharks, Warriors and Tigers, Wasps, Ospreys and Pirates: Georgian players in Britain

Ever since Georgia has begun to breed world-class rugby players, most of the best young talents have started to leave the country’s Didi 10 (‘Big 10’) division to join clubs in bigger leagues. Almost all Georgians end up in France: when The Lelos appointed the Frenchman Claude Saurel as their coach in 1999 he arranged for several French teams to sign Georgian players, and the connections that Saurel created remain to this day.

Only a few Georgians have played professionally in Britain. The first is the now-veteran hooker Shalva Mamukashvili, who in 2014 left the Didi 10 side Armia Tbilisi to join Sale Sharks in the English Premiership. After a season with Sale, Mamukashvili spent a year with Glasgow’s Warriors.

After Georgia’s two victories at the 2015 World Cup, powered by a scrum that had become one of the most feared in world rugby, Georgian forwards saw their stocks rise. Over the next few years five more players followed Mamukashvili to Britain: the hooker Jaba Bregvadze (Worcester Warriors), props Anton Peikrishvili (Cardiff Blues) and Zurab Zhvania (London Wasps), and the second-rows Nodar Tcheishvili (Cornish Pirates, London Scottish) and Giorgi Nemsadze (Bristol Bears and Ospreys in Wales). The only back to have joined them is the centre Giorgi Kveseladze, who in 2021 signed for Gloucester.

Several more of the current Lelos squad have played rugby while studying in England. The team’s new captain, centre Merab Sharikadze, played for the prestigious Hartpury College in Gloucestershire; the second-row Lasha Jaiani has recently joined London Wasps from Exeter University; and fly-half Tedo Abzhandadze left his club in Kutaisi for a year to play at Terenure College in Ireland.

Georgian players haven’t only been in demand with British clubs: they have become friendly adversaries of the England team. In 2018 England’s coach Eddie Jones flew a group of Georgian forwards to London for two days, for the two countries to train against each other. As Jones put it at the time: “They’re the biggest, ugliest, strongest scrum pack in the world. Why wouldn’t we want to scrummage against them?” The England team sparred with the Georgians again in 2019. A few months after this, the Premiership side Leicester Tigers had problems with their own scrum, and brought Mamukashvili back to England to steady the team.

Mamukashvili may be the first Georgian to play rugby professionally in Britain, but a Georgian had left a mark there long before he arrived. Gia Rapava was a second-row who played for the national team throughout the 1990s, making his debut for The Lelos on their tour of Zimbabwe in 1990. Some years after this Rapava moved to England, where he spent three years playing for clubs just below the top level of English rugby. He began at Bedford RFC, before moving to London Welsh, and finally played for Blackheath in south-east London, the world’s oldest rugby club.

The big investments made since the 1990s have allowed rugby to become a popular sport in Georgia. The national team’s results are front-page news, and its players are household names. But as more and more Georgians take up the game, the country’s rugby community is still closely-knit. Since the young centre Giorgi Kveseladze has been playing for Gloucester, one of his teammates has been the prop Val Rapava Ruskin – the son of Gia, who played in England 25 years earlier. Rapava Senior retired before rugby players were paid to play the game, but his son has spent his whole career as a professional with Worcester and Gloucester. Like his father, Val Rapava was born in Tbilisi; but having grown up in London – learning rugby at the Blackheath club where his father played – he has ambitions to play for England.

Give and take: British players in Georgia

If the history of Georgian rugby players in Britain has only recently begun in earnest, then the story of British players in Georgia goes back much further. There are even theories that the origins of Georgian rugby come not from the Frenchman Haspekian, but as an accidental export from the British Isles. One story goes that when a British cargo ship stopped in Batumi in the 1890s, some men working in the port invited them for a game of Lelo burti, where the Brits taught the Georgians some of their rugby skills. There are other rumours of games of rugby played between British and Georgian dockers in Poti in the 1920s.

A different kind of rugby exchange took place in 2015. Soon after Georgian rugby lost Val Rapava Ruskin to England, The Lelos took an Englishman in return. While playing rugby for Oxford University, a promising centre called Matthew Janney discovered that his grandfather’s surname was not actually Janney, but Janashvili. This led the Londoner to spend a year gathering the documents he needed to become eligible to play for Georgia. In 2015 Janney made his debut for the Georgian Sevens team.

In the years since, Georgian teams have hosted a number of visiting sides from Britain. An amateur team of the best players from the English counties has visited Georgia several times to play in friendly matches against Georgia’s A side, and youth teams from Cardiff Blues and London Wasps have also travelled to Tbilisi to play against Georgian academies. Some higher-profile British players arrived in Georgia in 2017, when the country hosted the Under-20 World Cup. During the tournament the England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland teams played matches in Tbilisi and Kutaisi. Georgia’s Under-20s lost narrowly to Ireland (24-18) on their way to finishing ninth out of 12 teams.

In 2019 Scotland became the first British nation to play a Test on Georgian soil, consigning Georgia to a 44-10 defeat in Tbilisi. The match highlighted the limbo that Georgian rugby finds itself in, as it fights for an invitation to join the Six Nations. The Lelos are untouchable in the Rugby Europe Championship (a tournament for European countries outside the Six Nations): the team has won every match since 2017, and hasn’t lost at home since 2009. But in 19 Tests against teams from the Six Nations, Georgia is still waiting for a first victory.

Georgia may not yet be able to overpower British teams. But the countries’ battles over the years have made everyone stronger. As Georgia’s former coach Milton Haig once said: “It’s not about money for them or the match fee. These guys would do it for nothing because playing for their country is the most important thing in the world for them. Our guys bleed for Georgia”.

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