A fifth straight European Nations Cup title came with added bonuses for Georgia head coach Milton Haig.
A number of the country's young players seized their chance to impress before Rugby World Cup 2015 as the Lelos swept all before them again to retain the ENC trophy and move above Italy into 14th place in the World Rugby Rankings.
While pleased to remain the dominant force in the competition, New Zealander Haig, who took charge of Georgia post-RWC 2011, says it was more important that other objectives were met as part of the team’s preparations for this year’s showpiece event in England.
“Obviously we wanted to win the competition but the main objective for this tournament was looking at players for the World Cup. We wanted to see how new players who’d not featured much before, if at all, would get on in places like Madrid and Bucharest where we've always found it tough, and also what level some of the older guys coming back from injury were at,” he said.
“Over the last three years we’ve built up our squad depth quite nicely, but we felt we still needed a few more options out wide because our captain Irakli Machkhaneli, who has played over 70 tests, retired in November.
“A couple of new wingers came through – Giorgi Aptsiauri, a young full-back/wing, and Alex Khutsishvili, a big, strong boy who’s played sevens before but this was his first crack at 15s.”
Haig also tipped young scrum-half Vasil Lobzhanidze, from the Tbilisi-based Armazi Rugby Club, for a bright future.
“He’s an exciting talent, that’s for sure,” Haig said. “He’s actually come on a little bit quicker than we thought he would. Originally we only intended to play him in one of the games but he played in three, starting the last two against Russia and Romania. He played so well we simply couldn’t leave him out.”
If Lobzhanidze plays in any of Georgia’s Pool C matches at RWC 2015, the 18-year-old will replace USA Eagle Thretton Palermo as the youngest player to compete in the tournament’s history. Palermo was eight days past his 19th birthday when he took to the field against the Springboks in Montpellier at RWC 2007. Lobzhanidze’s 19th birthday, on 14 October, falls a few days before the quarter-finals.
Realistically, Georgia will need to beat one of the big two in Pool C, New Zealand and Argentina, to have any hope of still being in the tournament at that stage.
“We’re not even looking at that,” Haig added. “Argentina are eighth in the world and we are 14th. The reason they are eighth is because they regularly beat the teams immediately below them and sometimes, as we saw with their win against Australia in the Rugby Championship, they beat the teams ahead of them.
“But if we can get some momentum through our pre-competition games and play well in our first game against Tonga, then who knows what could happen. Still, we’d have to play really well and Argentina would have to have an off day for us to have any chance of tipping them over.
“Our goal is to win two matches and finish third in the group. Automatically qualifying for a World Cup is something we’ve never done before.”
RWC 2015 preparations gather pace
With less than six months to go before RWC 2015 kicks off, 50-year-old Haig admits the tournament will be on them before they know it.
“We’ve been really, really busy with World Cup timelines to work to in conjunction with our normal calendar,” he said. “Now the European Nations Cup is over, we’ll go through the review process and then I’ll be in France for a week or so, catching up with all of our players who are based there.
“The Tbilisi Cup in June will provide us with another opportunity to look at players, and from that point onwards we’ll be full on with our preparations right the way through to the end of the World Cup.
“We’ve got a 10-11 week training camp, part of which will be spent at an Olympic Sports Centre in Poland on the Baltic coast, before we return to Georgia, have a week off, and then head over to London where we’ll be based for our three warm-up games.
"We play Premiership side Newcastle, in Newcastle on 28 August, followed by games against Canada (at Esher) and Japan (in Gloucester).
“Our plans are reasonably finely-tuned but that’s the way we want it to be. Preparation is absolutely key for us.”