Nika Amashukeli is one of six match officials selected for Rugby World Cup 2023 to use the World Rugby U20 Championship 2019 in Argentina as a springboard to the top.
But the Georgian is the only referee among the group with James Doleman (New Zealand), Craig Evans (Wales), Andrea Piardi (Italy) and Christophe Ridley (England) going to France as assistant referees and Brian MacNeice (Ireland) serving as a TMO.
To go from his first appearance as a referee at the U20 Championship (pictured below right) to his first Rugby World Cup in the space of four years, at the age of only 28, speaks volumes for how highly the Tbilisi-based official is regarded.
Factor in the lost year or so because of COVID-19 and it really has been the most dramatic of rises, you could say 'Bar' none given that is where his test refereeing journey began, for Montenegro v Estonia in 2015.
From those humble beginnings on the Montenegro coast in Bar, Amashukeli had just graduated to the ranks of the Rugby Europe Championship – but still had only four test appearances to his name – when he went to Argentina for the last World Rugby U20 Championship in 2019.
It was a huge learning curve, he says, and one that was vital to helping him get where he is today, on the verge of fulfilling his long-held dream of participating at a Rugby World Cup.
“I was 24 years old coming from the Georgian domestic league, mostly, so for me it was all new,” Amashukeli says, while enjoying some downtime back home in the Georgian capital with his wife and young daughter Nitsa.
“Referees who come from the Top 14, the Premiership, Super Rugby, they have an advantage, I would say, because they operate in a high-performance environment week in week out and they know what the elite game looks like on and off the field. That’s why the U20 Championship and the U20 Trophy is crucial in developing referees from countries the next level down.
“The U20 Championship is a really, really amazing tournament in every respect because the quality of rugby played by the youngsters is astonishing and they are well coached, they are physically well prepared, they attack space, they run loads and they are passionate and emotional. So, it gives you all the necessary ingredients.
“And it is the same for referees. You get all the young guys who are ambitious, who are performing really well in their domestic leagues and they want to proceed to the higher ranks. It was an incredible tournament, the last before COVID-19.
“If you look at the names of referees in that tournament, I will say we had a strong group. I think six have proceeded to the World Cup. That is massive. It shows the importance and the value for the U20 Championship, not only for the players, because we know the stories of the former U20s players who are now superstars for their national teams, but also for the match officials as well.”
As an extremely likeable, hard-working official who is fluent in three languages (Georgian, English and Russian) and also speaks “a bit of French”, Amashukeli is now seen as one of the best in his profession.
But he recalls getting a wake-up call during the U20 Championship in 2019, about what would be needed for him to realise his undoubted potential. It was while in Rosario that a corner was turned.
“When I underline what the U20s gave me, it is not just skills, it was quite a philosophical time as well,” he admits.
“I discovered many things. I discovered how well-disciplined the World Rugby elite referees are and how hard they work on their composure, their mannerisms … You need to know how to behave, if everyone is going left, you can’t go right.
“It is four weeks, quite difficult games, but very enjoyable, and you have to be part of the group, be positive, and you have to perform well.
“After two rounds of games, I remember asking myself, ‘are you ready for this, to work on so many details and nuances?’ Because I realised how much was required to be a top referee and how much it requires to be a referee in a World Rugby environment.
“My good friend and all-time favourite referee, Christophe Ridley, who is coming to the World Cup as an assistant referee, he was a highlight for me in the U20s because this guy was so young but already he had so much experience in every way – how he presented himself on the pitch, how he dealt with the TMO process, how he formulated decisions … I was like, this guy is just like a book.
“He impressed me so much and other guys as well, any one of them could give you something you could learn from.
“I realised how much more I needed to work on myself to proceed and how much dedication it takes to become a top referee, so it really opened up things. I needed that push.”
Once international rugby returned post-pandemic, Amashukeli used what he had learnt in Argentina to climb even higher in refereeing circles.
In 2022, he became the first Georgian to referee in the Six Nations and The Rugby Championship and now has 16 test appearances to his name.
“It gave me a lot of tools in the toolbox in terms of communicating with the players, with on-field TMO processes, and it also gave me a very close look at how the games were assessed and how you deal with pressure,” he says, further emphasising the value of the U20 Championship in his development as a match official.
“Obviously it is not at that high exposure in terms of social media but you’re in an environment where you have performance reviewers, World Rugby referee managers, selectors watching what you do, and you are living together so every game is under a microscope and there is quite a bit of pressure.
“It gave me a lot of experience to deal with the top guys, what they see as the key moments in the game, what they are focusing on and how you deal with 50:50 decisions, and the grey areas.”
Prank phone call
With top appointments continuing to come his way Amashukeli believed he might be in the frame to officiate at Rugby World Cup 2023. And, after three anxious days of waiting, the call finally came.
“The first Six Nations was a big deal for me and my country, and the first Rugby Championship, Champions Cup games … the main question was would it be as an assistant referee or as a referee, and when I found out I was going as a referee I was shocked, it was too much,” he says.
“Joël Jutge (World Rugby High Performance 15s Match Officials Manager) called me on a Saturday morning, and he was joking at first, ‘on your selection, we are still not sure’, he said.
“But then he welcomed me to the Rugby World Cup as a referee and a tear rolled down my eye.
“I had been watching the phone for 24 hours and I had already been waiting for three to four days before that. It took ages. It was the longest three days.
“We knew they were meeting in Dubai for selection, on 4 May, and I got the call on 7 May. It was only 11 o’clock in the morning when I got the call but I said to my wife, let’s open a bottle of wine. I think the celebrations continued until midnight.”
As an age-grade international for Georgia, Amashukeli once dreamed of appearing at a Rugby World Cup as a player.
But a succession of injuries led to him hanging up his boots early and taking up the whistle instead.
So, to be selected on the panel of match officials for Rugby World Cup 2023 was one of those special moments that deserved celebrating, long and hard.
“I can’t describe what it means, it means everything to me,” says Amashukeli, a keen gaming enthusiast in what little spare time he has.
“At first, I wanted to go as a player. I used to joke that I would go as a water carrier if they wanted me to.
“2015 was the most successful World Cup for Georgia but it was 2011 that affected me so much. I was playing for Georgia U17s at the time and we were watching the games and it was so special.
“Even now if I watch highlights on YouTube and it brings me goosebumps and chills, and even tears. I just wanted to go to a Rugby World Cup so badly, in whatever role. When I switched to refereeing it went really well and now I am here.”
What makes Amashukeli’s selection even more special is that he will make his tournament debut alongside Wayne Barnes, who refereed the first game of rugby that Amashukeli ever watched (pictured right) and is set for a record fifth Rugby World Cup.
Georgia’s narrow 14-10 defeat to Ireland at Rugby World Cup 2007 inspired Amashukeli to switch sports from football and the significance of appearing alongside one of his heroes is not lost on him.
“It’s a very symbolic story for me, because that first game for me watching, Barnesy was the referee. And 13 years after, we did a match together for the Autumn Nations Cup, with Scotland and France, and now we will be at the World Cup together. It is amazing, it really is.
“He has made such a contribution to the game, 100-plus tests, and a fifth World Cup, and I am really privileged to be with him and the other officials there at the World Cup. I am really looking forward to it.”