AS a veteran of four Rugby World Cups, two as a player and two as a coach, all with England, Graham Rowntree has seen it all before – literally so in the case of Georgia’s pool rivals at RWC 2019.
Georgia have been drawn in Pool D alongside Australia, Wales, Fiji and Uruguay – a line-up that gives the former international loose-head a serious case of déjà vu, as he faced the same sides when England forwards coach in 2015.
The irony is not lost on the 47-year-old who is clearly hoping for a better outcome the second time around after defeats to the Wallabies and Wales, between wins against Fiji and Uruguay, caused England to exit their home competition early.
“It’s certainly a familiar looking pool for me, and one that excites me. If I’m being honest, it’ll be nice to be the underdog,” he admits
Having secured direct qualification for Japan 2019 through their third-place pool finish at the last tournament in England, Georgia have had time to build, and Rowntree is delighted to be a part of that process.
Teaching Georgia how to scrum may be a bit like advising tennis great Roger Federer on his forehand or telling famed footballer Lionel Messi how to dribble, but Rowntree is confident he can improve the Lelos’ forward pack further.
“The Georgian DNA is incredible. We trained at Montpellier during the Autumn series and used their gym and they ran out of weights for the lads to use, I’d never seen that before; they are unbelievably strong and technically very good as well,” he says, enthusiastically.
“But I know that from my own experience in international rugby, we can’t just rely on a good set-piece, we’ve got to be better outside. When you play the big teams, World Cup games against the likes of Australia and Wales, they move the ball around.
“These days you’ve got to play; you have to have certain strengths that you can call upon when needed but you have to challenge teams and wear them out as well.
“It’s an understanding that you’ve got to be good at a lot of things as a forward now," he continues, "that there is a role outside of the set-piece and you need to respect those roles – little things like getting back up off the floor as quickly as possible and being back in the game, those are the things that make the difference at the highest level.”
Check out #TheLelos Schedule for @rugby_europe Champs 2019— Georgian Rugby Union (@GeorgianRugby) January 21, 2019
@RugbyRomania v Georgia 🇬🇪Cluj Arena 09/02
Georgia v @ferugby 🇪🇸 Avchala 17/02
@BelgianRugby v Georgia 🇬🇪Brussels 02/03
Georgia v @DRVRugby 🇩🇪 Kutaisi 10/03
@russiarugby v Georgia 🇬🇪 Krasnodar 17/03 pic.twitter.com/H8rIniGerO
Georgia begin their Rugby Europe Championship (REC) campaign this weekend with arguably their toughest assignment, Romania away, but having dominated that level of rugby for so long, it’s results against the tier one countries on which they are now measured.
In that sense, the 28-17 defeat to Italy in Firenze at the start of November was disappointing.
“In the Italy game we played well but it was the first game of our campaign and we had different combinations playing. We could’ve probably done with playing that game at the end of the Autumn series instead of at the start. We gave up the ball too easily and gave them easy possessions, and we’ve learnt from it,” he says.
Once the Rugby Europe Championship concludes with a trip to fellow RWC 2019 participants Russia in the middle of March, the six-month countdown to Japan begins.
“We’ve got a good lead-in to the World Cup and you can do a lot as a group in that time. After the Rugby Europe Championship, there is an option to get together again in April/May and then we’ve got warm-up games against Russia and Scotland before we get on the plane to Japan,” he explains.
Once there, Georgia and their forwards coach hope to make a positive impact.
“When I signed on with Georgia (in September) I had one eye on the World Cup,” he admits.
“Given the success of the last World Cup, we’d be lying if we said finishing in third place again wasn’t the minimum requirement.”
For Rowntree, who narrowly missed out on England selection for the triumphant Rugby World Cup 2003 campaign, this year’s tournament could be the most pleasurable yet, certainly compared to his last experience of the game’s flagship event.
Reflecting on England’s downfall and the break-up of the coaching group, Rowntree said: “To say we were criticised is perhaps an understatement. That was tough but that’s sport, it’s a business, they wanted to make changes and I fully understand that. You move forward and learn from it.”
Roles with the British & Irish Lions and English Premiership side Harlequins followed before Georgia came calling in September.
So far, he believes it to be the perfect fit.
“I love the game and I’ve got too much energy to give to be out of it for a period of time. It suits me this role," he says.
“This job certainly appealed to my nature. The players have a fantastic attitude and I genuinely believe we can surprise a few people at the World Cup.”
Photo: Georgia RU