Determined to bow out at the very top of his game, Mamuka Gorgodze has called time on his remarkable 14-year international career after 71 tests for his beloved Georgia.
A veteran of three Rugby World Cup campaigns, the barnstorming back-row has decided that Japan 2019 would be one tournament too far for him.
“I planned to finish my international career back in 2015 after the Rugby World Cup but the team asked me to stay, and I put retirement off for some time,” Gorgodze said. “But I never stopped thinking about it and finally this is what I am going do. I said several times that I would like the supporters to remember me well, so I think now is the time to leave.
“I am 33 already and will be over 35 by Rugby World Cup 2019. As I am getting older, I get tired and hurt much easier than before, and this will grow more noticeable with age.
“I was repeatedly offered to train exclusively for the World Cup, to join the team only for the key games, but this is not acceptable. The captain must always be with his team, to feel it and live with it, otherwise one is not a captain.
“I still have my strength, commitment and passion, but I cannot handle the game pressure in the same manner any more. If it were the matter of choosing, I would have chosen to stay with the national team, but one cannot keep on going by only playing international matches, and without practice and game exposure I would not be of any use to the team.”
While Lelos fans contemplate life without their hero and fear they will never see his like again, the Toulon star is confident that there are plenty of players ready to step up to replace him.
“The team might miss me, but nobody is irreplaceable and let us be honest, Georgia has plenty of great back-rowers and even better players emerge from age-grade teams. I decided to announce my retirement two years before the World Cup, just before the team enters the active preparation phase, so as not to cause any problems to the coaching staff.
“To be frank, I am one who is the most brokenhearted about this decision, but it is better to retire at the right time and make sure the fans remember you as a good player.”
Considered to be the best player that Georgia has ever produced and one of the most successful overseas players in French club rugby history, Gorgodze – or ‘Gorgodzilla’ as he is known throughout the rugby world for his fearsome, never-say-die play – first pulled on the Lelos jersey against Spain in 2003.
Gorgodze missed out on selection when Georgia made their Rugby World Cup debut in Australia, but since then he has been at the forefront of their emergence as a growing power in the game.
The Tbilisi-born player appeared at the Rugby World Cup in 2007, 2011 and 2015, and was named man of the match four times – against England and Romania at RWC 2011, and against Tonga and the All Blacks at RWC 2015.
His stunned reaction on hearing the announcement over the PA system as their first ever meeting with New Zealand wound down – ‘why me?’, he said – summed up the humility of the man, while the standing ovation he received from the crowd typified the admiration felt for him by all supporters, but particularly those from Georgia.
Admiration is a two-way street. “There are not many big rugby nations in the world who are privileged enough to have such fans as ours. Let us be honest, we, the Lelos, have never reached any significant success, but our fans just love us, they’ve always backed and supported us,” he said.
“I remember their support from the very first day of my international career. I can say that both the Lelos and their fan base were growing together during these years. The further we progressed, the more fans attended our games, and, importantly, their rugby awareness increased significantly.
“Now we can proudly say that the Lelos’ fans are true connoisseurs of rugby, and I would like to thank them with all my respect for all their support which the Georgian national team received from them."
While the Lelos came out on the wrong side of a 43-10 scoreline against the All Blacks in Cardiff, they still finished third in Pool C to automatically qualify for the next tournament for the first time in their history.
“During the 14 years I played for Georgia, our team has achieved significant progress. When I started my career, we would not dream of the kind of fixtures we regularly have now. Even medium-level opponents intimidated us, we were always too tense, because we did not want to be ashamed of ourselves," he said.
“It is all different now – we can play with more confidence against the strongest teams. Maybe it is too early to think about winning against them, but we know we have a chance to play our way and hurt them a bit.
“However, now is the time when we should be especially careful and vigilant. Our position (12th in the World Rugby Rankings) is coveted by many, and we need be as smart as we can be to retain what we have gained and to progress further.
“We should not have any trouble defending our current position, because there are some very good players coming up and they are capable of achieving more than we did.
“My one dream is to see Georgia play on a par with the Six Nations teams and reach the knockout stages of the Rugby World Cup. I am confident that the next generation of the Lelos will achieve this.”
Some of that next generation will be in action when Georgia hosts the World Rugby U20 Championship 2017 from 31 May to 18 June.
GORGODZE BY NUMBERS
71 – Caps for Georgia, 12 as captain
26 – Tries scored in tests
14 – Years as an international