Barring injury, goal-kicking full-back Merab Kvirikashvili will have the honour of becoming the first Georgian to bring up a century of tests when the Lelos take on Germany on the second weekend of the Rugby Europe Championship on 19 February.
The 33-year-old has scored 768 points in 98 test appearances since making his debut for the Lelos in 2003, appearing in all four of their Rugby World Cup campaigns in 2003, 2007, 2011 and 2015.
Centre Davit Kacharava and back-row Giorgi Chkhaidze are not far behind him, on 96 and 94 caps respectively, but both are sidelined through injury.
“I’m pretty stoked for Meko (Merab) because he’s had some tough hurdles to overcome in the last 12 months and he has overcome them pretty well. To be the first to 100 caps is special and something nobody can take away from him," said Georgia head coach Milton Haig.
“I spoke to all three boys 18 months ago, about reaching that target and what they’d have to do to get there. Obviously as they get a little bit older, they need to look after their bodies a little bit more and we need to look after them as well but all three of them have done very, very well.”
While Kvirikashvili continues to be a fine servant to Georgian rugby and no doubt hopes to be around long enough to play in Japan in two years’ time, Haig has his eye on the other end of the age spectrum and plans to blood several newcomers throughout the next two years of the Rugby Europe Championship, the new name for the European Nations Cup.
With qualification for RWC 2019 secured through their third-place pool finish at the last tournament in England, Haig has the luxury of building his squad so they can go one better at the next edition in Japan, and reach the knockout stages for the first time.
The Lelos look particularly well-blessed at scrum-half where Vasil Lobzhanidze, the youngest ever player to appear at a Rugby World Cup following his exploits in England, faces stiff competition from uncapped 18-year-old Gela Aprasidze. Haig couldn’t be more fulsome in his praise for the latest young buck at number nine.
“He’s the most natural attacking player within the Georgia system; he’s an absolute freak and wouldn’t look out of place in New Zealand. I recently spent some time with the Blues and Highlanders in Super Rugby to see what they’re doing and I’ve talked to them about sending him down there to get some experience," Haig revealed.
“Both he and Vasil can play 10 as well but, in my mind, I’d like to keep them as nines. It’s going to be a good battle between those two boys as they go through their careers to see who comes out on top. Most importantly, both are very natural players.”
WORLD CUP GOALS
Aprasidze is one of his six uncapped players in the Lelos’ squad for the Rugby Europe Championship, while others like Clermont back-rower Otar Giorgadze, who last featured at the World Rugby Tbilisi Cup a couple of years ago, get the chance to re-establish themselves on the international scene.
“I didn’t rotate the squad that much in 2016 because I felt it was important to back up what we did in England the year before," explained Haig. "But this year is more about looking at the other players and building some depth throughout the team. We’ve still got three years to integrate them into our environment.
“Our main goal is to win it (the Rugby Europe Championship) again and if we can build some depth during that process then even better.
“We’ve said to the younger players that if you prove yourself and get a tick next to your name, then maybe in three years’ time you’ll be on that plane to the World Cup."