OMAEZAKI, 9 Oct - Georgia's World Cup might not have gone entirely to plan but the Lelos' stable of up-and-coming youngsters bodes well for the next four-year cycle.
That is according to Peter Horne, World Rugby's General Manager for High Performance, who sees Georgia as a great example of the increasing "rugby IQ" among young players of Tier 2 nations.
In Japan, Georgia have boasted a slew of promising players under the age of 24, with the likes of Otari Giorgadze, Guram Gogichashvili, Vano Karkadze, Giorgi Melikidze and Beka Gorgadze - who are all playing Top 14 rugby in France next season - expected to mature into world-class players over the next few years.
But in their rugby evolution, one aspect is perhaps more important than most. While the nation's talent has traditionally been lopsided in favour of forwards, they have boasted an equally youthful group of rising backs at Rugby World Cup 2019.
Spearheaded by 20-year-old fly-half Tedo Abzhandadze, pictured, whose creativity was on show earlier this year at the World Rugby U20 Championship, and Vasil Lobzhanidze, who turns 24 next week, the pair are complemented by 21-year-old centre Giorgi Kveseladze, scrum-half Gela Aprasidze, also 21, and winger Mirian Modebadze, 22. Even their captain and centre, Merab Sharikadze, is aged just 26.
"While they might be disappointed with their results here in Japan, the key thing about Georgia is they have been producing good results at age grade, which will ultimately filter into test-level performance," said Horne, who is responsible for World Rugby's development programme, targeting Tier 2 and emerging unions.
"Georgia is in an evolutionary process where they have got to keep getting players into their talent development pathways at 14- to 16-years-old, getting them into a consistent daily training environment so that by the time they reach 18-20, their rugby IQ is greater than someone who started from a later base.
"This is the advantage that the Tier 1 unions have. Their pathways often start at an earlier age, so they have greater numbers to select from in their squads."
As they prepare for their final Pool D match against Australia, Horne said that Georgia having to recall Mamuka Gorgodze due to injuries was a prime example of the need to deepen the squad, a key focus area for the governing body's investment in Tier 2 teams.
"They often have one strong player per position, but when you get to the bench it gets a bit difficult, and when you get to the back of the squad, it gets really difficult. If you have any injuries, then it becomes critical.
"But Georgia are getting to a point where they have a good block of juniors now and the future looks bright. They will succeed because they have a legitimate high-performance system that for some unions is an envy."
Georgia's main academy is based at the national team training base, Shevardeni Rugby Stadium, in the capital Tbilisi. There are also development centres in Kutaisi and Batumi, and several smaller academies in Gori and Telavi.
"So you've got large numbers of young Georgian players in daily training environments, which help produce good quality U20 programmes," Horne said.
"Then, it's just the challenge of converting U20s to test-level rugby."
Georgian Rugby Union's high performance manager, Vasil Abashidze, said World Rugby's investment in overseas coaches such as Milton Haig, Graham Rowntree, Joe Worsley, strength and conditioning coach Phil Healy, and Simon Pope, who leads the medical staff, has helped the nation develop its own coaching and technical stock, and as a result, increased the depth, development and conversion of its younger players into senior-level players.
"A new high-performance academy programme was introduced last year by Georgia's U20 coach, and players aged 14 to 16 are exactly the age of players being targeted," Abashidze said.
"We are already noticing that the project is developing in the right direction, and our expectations have been confirmed by a number of highly rated overseas academy managers. Each year we are seeing four or five U20 national team players coming through to the senior team."
One of the difficulties Georgia faces is that the body types most suited to playing in the backs - smaller, speedier frames than forwards - are often lured by the more lucrative careers that football offers.
"I want to apologise to our supporters, we know how much this means to you..."— Rugby World Cup (@rugbyworldcup) 3 October 2019
Heart wrenching interview from the @GeorgianRugby captain Merab Sharikadze, after his sides tough loss to Fiji at #RWC2019 #GEOvFIJ pic.twitter.com/OiMNZecYQn
"They've got to continue to identify kids like Vasil and Tedo who have that body type, talent and speed, and attract them into rugby," Horne said. "They are out there."
But head coach Haig and Horne both assert that, in their experience, rugby has become the de facto national sport.
"If you talk to people in Georgia, there is that feeling that the national sport is rugby now, because the team is arguably more successful than their football team," Horne said.
'Winning the hearts and minds of Georgian youth is, therefore, a key priority for the nation's rugby union, so that more kids will choose rugby over the more traditional allure of football.
"Once that tipping point is reached, then we will see more Georgians who are better backs. The best Georgian forwards will always go to France and many of them are considered world class. The next evolution is they need to create enough quality and talent in the backs to make them more of an interest to the right professional clubs."