Georgia on their minds

Flag-Pins-Romania-Georgia

This week’s 2017 Rugby Europe Nations’ Championship Cup Tournament decider marks a special moment: the rare appearance of Gorgodzilla in a Georgia shirt. But if the two packs can win penalties off each other at set pieces, the men tasked with taking advantage could determine the destination of the Antim Cup this year.

Mamuka Gorgodze is the Ryan Giggs of Georgian rugby. Don’t argue. Anyone can see that they are both swarthy wing forwards; and the /g-g-z/ phonetic pattern in the surname is a pleasing bonus. But come with me on this. Giggs’ international football career for Wales, spanning sixteen years at a time when he was the nation’s most high-profile and usually best player, yielded just 64 caps. Our man Gorgodze, who supposedly only took up rugby when he was 17, made his debut for Georgia aged 18 in February 2003. A club career spent in the top tier of the French game has taken its toll on international appearances, of which – at the age of 32 – he has made 69. Like Giggs an automatic pick for his country, Gorgodzilla’s club, currently Toulon but for a decade before that Montpellier, has tended to be protective of its asset, Alex Ferguson-style, and to restrict the player’s involvement with the Georgian squad. Although the “Georgian monster” has shown his immense worth in World Cups (4 Man of the Match awards!) and other prestigious matches, he has played in only three of the last thirteen encounters in this competition – one against Russia and two against Romania, annual crunch games for the Georgians.

So the flanker’s inclusion in the squad for this Sunday’s match in Bucharest offers the spectator a tasty prospect. The two forward packs, many of whom play in France, are usually – and rightly – considered the main attraction of an Antim Cup clash. But I put it to you that this game could hinge on a couple of centurions in the back line.

meko

Merab Kvirikashvili was born on 27 December 1983 in Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital, part of the Soviet Union at the time. He made his international debut, aged 19, on 16 February 2003, in a defeat to Portugal in Lisbon. (Other scrum halves appearing in major internationals that same weekend included Bryan Redpath and Fabien Galthié: that’s how long ago we’re talking.) Kvirikashvili’s second game for the national team, a week later, saw the debut of future Georgia captain and world-class flanker Mamuka Gorgodze.*  Having started his career as a scrum-half, “Meko” has played at 9, 10 and 15 for his country, but since 2013 has been settled at full-back. He won his 100th cap – the first Georgian to do so – last month against Germany, and passed 800 international points last week against Russia. He has been Georgia’s all-time leading points scorer since March 2012.

*Kvirikashvili also played on future South Africa captain and world-class flanker Schalk Burger’s international debut. Amazing what you can learn by spending just a few hours up to your neck in the ESPN stats engine.

vlaicuFlorin Vlaicu was born on 26 July 1986 in Bucharest, capital of Romania. He made his international debut aged 19, on 3 June 2006 against Ukraine. His second appearance for the national team was the debut of future France captain and world-class flanker Thierry Dusautoir. Having begun as a full-back and super-sub utility player for Romania, Vlaicu has since 2013 been a fixture at inside centre; however, this week he will be employed at fly-half, a position he admits is not his favourite. He has been Romania’s all-time leading points scorer since June 2013. He won his 100th cap – the first Romanian to do so – last weekend against Belgium, and passed the 800-point mark in the same game, when his try and four conversions took him past Kvirikashvili’s total.

These two perennial kicking machines are not only the second and third centurions (ever!) of Tier 2 nations, but the highest international points scorers of anyone currently playing the game, and have been facing each other in internationals since 2006. Meko has had the better of it, with eight wins against Romania to Vlaicu’s two against Georgia. Vlaicu averages eight points per game overall, but less than six points per game against Georgia, while Kvirikashvili’s record is actually better than usual against Romania. The muscular Vlaicu scored his eleventh international try in Brussels on Saturday – at the back of a driving maul, just like against Spain the other week. Romania always win when he scores a try, but then they usually win anyway, because very few higher-ranked nations will give them a game. Although each man’s contribution when not aiming at the sticks can leave something to be desired – Vlaicu being largely solid and Meko error-prone – whether or not the game does turn out to be dominated by the two lauded packs, goal-kicking could hold the key to the outcome.

For Romania the omens are not great. The encounter on this ground two years ago produced a dour and tryless affair, a 15-9 away win in which the hosts never looked like sparking a victory. Then, in 2016, an experimental Oaks team was blown away 38-9 in Tbilisi, a demonstration of the Lelos’ increasing superiority over their foes.

A solid Romanian performance at the 2015 World Cup was followed by an impressive 2016, in which the single, heavy defeat in Tbilisi did not detract from a feeling of positivity: the autumn saw convincing home wins over the USA, Canada and Uruguay. Improved play in the back line, to complement the consistency and power up front, hinted at a bright future, and before the tournament began the squad had their best preparation for years. Nothing warned us that Offenbach was about to happen. That shocking defeat to Germany last month, which was triggered by first-half errors and apparent complacency, was a big psychological setback, subsequently reflected in a lacklustre performance against Spain. Although Russia and minnows Belgium were beaten in bonus-point away victories, by all accounts the performances were still below par.

antim cup
The fabled Antim Cup, contested by Georgia and Romania

Pertinent facts:

  • Georgia have not lost a match to anyone in this tournament for five years
  • Romania have not beaten Georgia in seven attempts
  • Romania have not scored a try against Georgia in the last four matches between the sides
  • Italy have scored more points in their last seven games against the All Blacks than Romania have posted in their last seven against Georgia.

Because of Georgia’s heroics at the last World Cup, Sunday’s match is shorn of its customary importance in terms of qualification for the next one. At least, that was the theory before Offenbach, when finishing second in the table in spring 2018 seemed a formality. Now Romania must strive for every bonus point so that they do not end up needing a result in Tbilisi next March in order to secure second place and automatic qualification for Japan 2019. The Lelos are certainly superior to the Oaks these days and have much the better claim for access to matches against the world’s top sides; yet, if Romania were to get a big win on Sunday they would sit on top of the table ahead of next February’s fixtures.

Now the big match approaches. I can smell the mici, taste the Ursus, see the pre-match brass band leader’s face in my mind’s eye. Romania coach Lynn Howells has encouraged his team to go out and play rugby, to enjoy themselves. Anything can happen in sport, right?

Right?

Hai Stejarii!!

PS Watch this video about the Georgian national team – there are English subtitles!

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