CAPTAIN MARVEL: Georgia captain Mamuka Gorgodze dives at the post to score his side's first try
GLOUCESTER, 19 Sept – Head coach Milton Haig hailed Georgia's Pool C victory over Tonga at Kingsholm on Saturday as "historic" and is confident there is more to come from the Lelos during the tournament.
Georgia braved a late Tonga fightback to secure only their third Rugby World Cup victory - but their first in an opening RWC match - in which the Islanders saw two tries disallowed and Georgia made 213 tackles against 48 by their opponents.
Scores from their captain, Mamuka Gorgodze, and flanker Giorgi Tkhilaishvili, either side of half-time, were enough to seal victory but Georgia had to see out the final eight minutes with 14 men after their full-back, Merab Kvirikashvili, was sin-binned following a late try from Tonga wing Fetu’u Vainikolo.
"This has been four years of planning and it's been four years of work from everybody involved," Haig said. "It has obviously been a focus we have had in the last two years since we qualified for Pool C and we knew, if we were going to have a chance to create history for Georgian rugby, we had to win this game together.
"There is still a long way to go in this group but, as you can see, we are delighted by the result."
The scrum, as expected, was fiercely contested and it was Tonga who were first to show their strength at the set piece. The Georgia pack collapsed within kicking range for fly-half Kurt Morath, who notched the first three points from the tee in the 10th minute.
Kvirikashvili missed his first strike at the posts moments later as Georgia steadied their scrum but he fared better in the 20th minute, converting a penalty earned by the mighty Lelos driving-maul.
Tonga looked sharp with the phases, wings Vainikolo and Telusa Veainu both showing flair on the counter-attack, but the Europeans were winning the battle up front and were rewarded for their patience in the 28th minute as mammoth man of the match Gorgodze scored with an outstretched arm at the base of the posts to complete a powerful surge from the Lelos pack.
"I think this was the best victory in our history because we are a very small team," Gorgodze said. "Maybe we have players that play in good teams, but we’ve never had a win like this.
"I don’t think about my performance today. I am the captain and I took man of the match but all the players were the same today. The small nations like Georgia are tight, more than professional sides. We are friends and brothers.”
Training ground move
As the half came to a close, the Ikale Tahi looked to have pulled themselves back in touch with a clever lineout move straight off the training pitch. Five metres out, Tonga captain Nili Latu guided a disguised, but slightly forward, pass to the charging number eight, Viliami Ma’afu, who sliced through, only to see the try disallowed.
Sione Kalamafoni, who calls Kingsholm his home in the Aviva Premiership, was disappointed that the decision didn't go to the television match official (TMO).
"The decision before half-time was a real disappointment and we felt it was a harsh call that could have easily been replayed to check if it was correct. We asked the ref to have a look at the replay but he said he had made his decision and was happy with it.
"Credit to Georgia. They had the better of the lineout and scrum and deserved the win. Our ball-handling was poor because I felt we were missing opportunities due to dropping the ball so we need to go back and fix that.”
Kvirikashvili missed from the tee again 10 minutes into the second half from more than 40 metres out but Georgia were taking the game by its scruff as their scrum grew bolder.
Tonga struggled to escape their own half throughout the second period and were duly punished. Morath hit an up and under which was clasped safely by Kvirikashvili at full-back. He burst into life, cutting round Vainikolo to set Georgia on their way to a second try.
Just when it appeared they had missed a prime opportunity, 24-year-old Tkhilaishvili collected a loose ball from the breakdown and cruised past Tonga full-back Vungakoto Lilo for only his second international score.
Tonga, 14 points behind, came to life and looked to have finally scored a try, only for centre Siale Piutau to knock-on as he pounced to touch down after a delicate grubber kick had split the resolute Georgia defence.
The onslaught continued and Vainikolo finally crossed in the corner, making him Tonga's greatest try-scorer with 15, to set up a close finish but Georgia’s defence was sound and held the Tongans at bay.