It was a year of highs on the pitch and one big low off it in 2021 for the Georgian men’s national team.
On the pitch, they once again swept away all before them to win the Rugby Europe Championship title with five wins from five.
They finished on 24 points, some 10 points clear of nearest challengers Romania, and that showing leaves them in pole position to qualify for Rugby World Cup 2023 in France.
The points from this year’s Rugby Europe Championship, which gets underway this coming Saturday, 5 February, will be added to those from 2021 with the top two from the combined table qualifying for the showpiece event and a third team going through to the Final Qualification Tournament.
After Georgia lifted the Rugby Europe Championship cup in 2021 they pushed reigning world champions South Africa close before being overpowered 40-9 away from home in July.
Later and back in Europe, they took on France and gave them a run for their money before going down 41-15, and then they drew 15-15 with a Fiji side who are one place ahead of them in the World Rugby Men’s Rankings powered by Capgemini.
The current state of play for Georgia
All of this leaves Georgia 12th in the world in a good spot and ready to make headway in the coming months or so. However, one massive low came for them last July when they were in South Africa.
Head coach Levan Maisashvili fell critically ill whilst on the tour due to COVID-19 and, according to some experts, was very lucky to pull through.
National team skipper Merab Sharikadze explains: “That was a very scary time, not a good one for anyone involved with rugby in Georgia.
“When we heard just how ill Levan was, all of the players and the other staff were concerned for him of course because he is a great man who has done so much for rugby in our country over the years.
“He had to stay in South Africa for quite a while and was seriously ill in the beginning, but it shows the fight the man has in him that by the time Black Lion, the Georgian franchise in the Rugby Europe Super Cup, played our first game of the tournament in October he was back coaching us from the sidelines.
“When he turned back up at training only a few months after he took ill we could not quite believe it, but it put big smiles on all of our faces and now all of Georgian rugby is pushing in a positive direction as 2022 gets going.”
Centre Sharikadze, the 28-year-old who now has 80 caps for his country, references the Rugby Europe Super Cup and it was certainly a great way to get young players game time at a good level during the latter months of 2021.
To date in the inaugural running of the competition - which still has one outstanding regular season match to go and then the play-offs - Black Lion have won four and lost one to top the Eastern Conference ahead of two franchises from Russia and one from Israel.
“The Super Cup has been very good in its early months for Georgian rugby,” Sharikadze said.
“Since Rugby World Cup 2019 in Japan we have tried to bring through a number of young players into our full Georgia squad so that there is more competition for starting places and more strength in depth across the board.
“Obviously, 2020 was quite difficult as the pandemic took hold over the world, but last year some of these younger players got a really good run of games with the national team and then the experience with Black Lion and it is easy to see how much they have improved already.
“We are all very excited about these new players and what they add to our group as a national squad. They are always running about with lots of energy at training and are talented, so they have made the older players like me raise our games too so that we keep our places in the squad.
“Everyone pushing everyone else’s standards up can only help Georgia rugby forward to the next level.”
The next generation
The ‘new crop’ of Georgian talent is led by standout Tedo Abzhandadze who, at 22, already has nearly 30 caps to his name.
And when Sharikadze talks about pushing standards up, he’s well aware that his side will have to do just that in this year’s Rugby Europe Championship over the next couple of months.
The event starts with Romania facing Russia on Saturday, 5 February and Spain host the Netherlands on the same day, and then, on 6 February, Georgia welcome Portugal to the Avchala Stadium in their capital city Tbilisi.
“When we went away to play Portugal last March they gave us a good game [Georgia eventually won 29-16 in Lisbon] and they are certainly a side that has been improving very quickly over the last couple of years,” Sharikadze said about their first opponents of 2022.
“We have watched footage of them from last year and will have to defend well in the game against them, but we know if we can get on the front foot and attack the way we like to then we will hope to start with a win in our own country.
“Every country raises their standards in the Championship when they play us because we have been the team to beat in the competition for a number of years now.
“We know that all the other five countries will throw everything at us and we must be ready for that and also look to steadily improve our consistency and performances.
“I am looking forward to it.”
The Rugby Europe Championship is due to run until Sunday, 20 March with games being played on the same five weekends that the Six Nations is on, so it is a big couple of months for men’s rugby in Europe.