‘Sorry we didn’t speak at the afterparty,’ says Georgia’s rugby president Soso Tkemaladze as he appears online from his homeland via Zoom.
‘It was a very big party after we beat Italy, many people. I think there were 50 bottles of wine and champagne. It was a huge game for the whole of Georgia. Afterwards, nobody wanted to work!
‘Everybody was drinking and celebrating.’
Soso Tkemaladze celebrates wildly as Georgia record their first ever win over a tier one nation
The dust has now settled on what was a famous day for The Lelos. Their 28-19 victory over Italy in Batumi was their first against a tier-one nation and a moment of history for the whole country.
Georgia’s challenge moving forward is to make sure games and wins like that are the norm not the exception. This is, without a doubt, an ambitious rugby nation.
‘I was already working 24 hours-a-day,’ Tkemaladze says with a smile.
The president of the Georgian rugby federation spoke of how much work was being put in to ensure the continued growth of the sport in the country
‘Now I need to work 26!’
With the financial backing of their former prime minister and billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, Georgia’s rugby growth in the last decade has been significant. The Italy result was a landmark moment.
For many, it was confirmation that they should have the chance to join the Six Nations via a promotion and relegation play-off in the years to come.
Tkemaladze believes there is significant work for Georgia to do before that can happen and among the things he is working on is improving the country’s domestic game.
He is actively exploring the possibility of a Georgian club side joining the United Rugby Championship – a league currently made up of 16 teams from Ireland, Wales, Scotland, Italy and South Africa.
He is exploring the possibility of a team from Georgia joining the United Rugby Championship
‘We are looking at this and we need an offer to see if we are ready to jump,’ Tkemaladze adds.
‘We need something like the URC, a stronger competition.’
Tkemaladze continues: ‘When I said to everybody about Georgia rugby’s ambitious plans, they were shocked. One day Georgia will become world champions, but to do that we need a strategy which we are working hard on now. After 10 or 15 years, I think big results are very doable.
‘I think he will do our job (joining the Six Nations) in two to three years.
‘Of course we were more than happy after Italy. It was very necessary for the whole country who were waiting for this match. Georgian rugby has gone to another level.
Tkemaladze said that people were shocked at the ambition of Georgia’s rugby plans
‘We hope this win will help bring another big win, but to do that we have to work, work and work. ‘The rugby authorities have seen what we’ve done. But I’m telling our supporters, our rugby people, and our players we need to do more.
‘We need to show everyone our regular matches are all on the same level as the Italy game. The Six Nations want to see long-term plans.
‘As the president I am saying we need two or three more years to make some changes. The rest is dependent on the Six Nations. It is not in our control.
‘Wales beat South Africa, Italy beat Wales, and Georgia beat Italy. It means Georgia is world champion! Of course the Six Nations is our dream, but to get there we need to work.’
The Six Nations want to see regular fixtures on the same ‘level’ on a long term basis for the country to be admitted to the competition
By deservingly getting the better of Italy, Georgia showed they are worthy of a place among northern hemisphere’s rugby elite when it comes to on-field ability.
Yet Championship merit is not just determined by what happens between the white lines.
The Italy match was the chance for Georgia to show they are Six Nations material in other areas like commercialization and broadcasting. There were 28 TV cameras at the Azzurri game and a capacity crowd in a 20,000-seater stadium. Tickets were reasonably priced in the £20-£35 bracket.
‘In 26 of Georgia’s municipalities there were big TV screens showing the match,’ Tkemaladze says proudly. ‘People all over the country wanted to know what was happening.
‘From this victory the number of kids playing rugby will increase by 3,000 to 5,000.’
Under the guidance of head coach Levan Maisashvili, Georgia now look capable of troubling tier-one countries at Test level. Their next big chance will be against Wales in Cardiff this November.
The country’s domestic rugby does need work. Georgia’s franchise team Black Lion, which is based in Tbilisi, plays in the Rugby Europe Super Cup and has also featured in the first division of South Africa’s Currie Cup. Georgia’s best players play in England and France.
‘We are looking for a competition of higher quality,’ Tkemaladze says, repeating his desire for a Georgian side to join the URC. ‘To be honest we were not happy with the South African competition because we saw a very low quality. We expected more.’
Over the course of a 40-minute video call, Tkemaladze’s passion for Georgian rugby is more than obvious. He has just come from a meeting with the country’s prime minister.
A cigarette is lit halfway through our conversation as he talks rapidly.
Tkemaladze is like Georgian rugby in many ways – both are keen to work at 100-miles-an-hour.
Before he goes, Tkemaladze finishes with a story from the Italy match involving his opposite number and Azzurri president Marzio Innocenti.
‘Of course he (Innocenti) was expecting Italy to win and he told me that before the game,’ Tkemaladze says, his face breaking into a smile. ‘He told me I needed to organize an afterparty and that Georgia needed to learn how to celebrate the winners even if we lost.
‘I said “Don’t tell me this” because the afterparty was already ready! Georgian hospitality is very historic. Even when the enemy is coming, we are ready with our bread, cheese and oil!
Tkemeladze shakes the hand of Marzio Innocenti, Italy’s rugby president, upon Georgia claiming the win
‘I said if Italy win, I will sing a song in Italian. But if Georgia win, he (Innocenti) must sing a song in Georgian. Italy lost the match. He (Innocenti) didn’t even come to the afterparty! Why I respect rugby is because at the end, everyone is still brothers even after a match of war and fighting.
‘Sometimes there is a real fight – and everyone still comes out like brothers! We need sports like this in the world. Politicians need to learn to hug each other like us.
‘You’d have to ask him (Innocenti) why he did not come. Because we won, I sang in Georgian anyway – that’s why my voice is still a bit damaged!
‘I still say thanks to Italy for coming to play us. We were so thankful they came to Georgia. We do not want Italy to be kicked out of the Six Nations. The format of eight is good for me. Why not?’