Georgian Rugby Team Shines

Rugby players perform well on world stage, but still struggle at home.

Georgian Rugby Team Shines

Rugby players perform well on world stage, but still struggle at home.

An unusual silence reigns in central Tbilisi's packed café Basement as all eyes turn to the small television showing Georgia's rugby team battling Samoa in the World Cup in Australia.

Even though the Georgian team was defeated 46-9, there was no doubting the pride that local people have in their team's achievement of making it onto rugby's biggest stage.

Georgia is a relative newcomer to rugby and remains very much a minnow internationally, but it is the only team sport in which Georgia has managed to notch up successes, notably winning the European Nations Cup in 2001 and, for the first time, entering the final stages of the World Cup this year.

But neither their international presence nor the support of their fans can help the athletes overcome crippling financial problems.

In fact, there was some doubt as to whether the Georgian team would actually manage to get to Australia. Even as the Georgian team were training in France in September, they were nearly evicted from their hotel because funds were not available on time to settle their hotel account.

The president of the Georgian Rugby Federation, Bidzina Gegidze, then appealed to the government, criticising its attitude to the problems facing a team which "ought to be the pride of all Georgia."

The appeal, accompanied by biting articles in Tbilisi newspapers, worked, and measures were taken to remedy the situation. The country's president, Eduard Shevardnadze, ordered 134,400 laris, 64,000 US dollars, to be paid out of the presidential fund to cover some of the team's training costs. Several Georgian entrepreneurs donated 10,000 dollars each, and in the end the required sum was raised.

A small group of Georgian fans who tried to get to Australia were reported to have been denied visas at the last minute.

Having made their debut in the World Cup, the Georgian rugby team have not gone very far and already the first three games, including a crushing 84-6 defeat against tournament favourites England, have seen them lose any chance of moving into the next stage of the competition.

But the manner of the third defeat at 46-19 to South Africa on October 24 will give hope to many rugby supporters in Georgia and has already inspired a surprised respect among more seasoned international fans of the game.

South Africa is considered one of the giants of world rugby and should have dealt easily with the inexperienced Georgians. Yet at one stage the Springboks led by only 13 points and were being constantly embarrassed by the Georgians' spirited play, which included a try by the hooker David Dadunashvili and five out of five successful goal kicks by fly-half Paliko Jimsheladze.

When the game ended, Georgia did a lap of honour around the stadium and received a standing ovation.

Georgia's fans are used to such highs and lows. Everyone remembers the all-night celebrations in Tbilisi on October 13, 2001 when a victory over arch rivals Russia won Georgia a place in this year's World Cup. Against a background of once again strained relations with Russia, the whole country delighted in this sporting revenge.

Officials now believe the sport is developing fast. "We've achieved a lot lately. Most members of the national team play for French clubs where they're improving their ability to play at a professional level," one Georgian Rugby Union official said.

According to him, this explains why the Georgians managed to make it to the World Cup, "There's no comparison between the conditions in which our players train and compete in France and our own national championship where the situation is very difficult."

Many believe that Claude Sorel, the French coach hired to bring the Georgian team up to scratch, is a hero.

But funding remains a chronic problem. "Of course the situation in the country is difficult," said the rugby union official. "Who cares about sports when there are huge problems in other areas? But we don't often get the money allocated to us by the state budget."

Malkhaz, a rugby fan from Tbilisi, thinks he knows the answer, "Instead of wasting money on sports in which we keep failing, they should give strong support to the few sporting fields in which Georgian athletes are among the best in the world - rugby, wrestling and so on."

Giorgy Kupatadze is an IWPR contributor in Tbilisi.

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