Georgia lead impressive rise of emerging nations
September 17, 2007
"Who said the number of teams in the World Cup should be reduced to 16 or even 12? And who said amateurs should not be allowed to play against pros for their own safety? How wrong can you be?" John Taylor reports
Who said the number of teams in the World Cup should be reduced to 16 or even 12?
And who said amateurs should not be allowed to play against professionals for their own safety?
I'll confess, I kept my own counsel but I was certainly one of those who had major reservations and I was worried that the whole credibility of the tournament would suffer as we saw mismatch after mismatch in the first couple of weeks.
How wrong can you be? This has turned out to be the World Cup where the minnows have shown they are anything but mere cannon fodder.
In previous tournaments the likes of Georgia, Namibia, Portugal and Japan have defended heroically for as long as possible but have looked totally out of their class.
This time round all of them have been prepared to take the game to the big boys instead of just soaking up punishment. They have realised the best form of defence is attack and the way they have risen to the occasion just shows that the romance of rugby has not completely disappeared with the advent of professionalism.
Pride of place must go to the Georgians who have now produced two extraordinary performances. I spent some time with their president, George Nijaradze before their opening match against Argentina and he left me in no doubt that they were not just here to make up the numbers.
There was an information sheet distributed by the organising committee that depicts Georgia as the Cinderella nation of this World Cup with only 300 players and eight rugby pitches.
It was duly trotted out by one of my commentator colleagues I'm afraid and by the BBC on Saturday's 10 o'clock news so let's put the record straight before this myth is perpetrated further.
According to George (who roared with laughter when confronted with the fact sheet) they have about 2,800 senior players and upwards of 15,000 juniors.
There are six clubs in the top division, five in the second and then there are two regional divisions with 15 clubs in each. He admits that they have a problem with pitches but says the number is certainly in the hundreds.
That done he is anxious to stress that Georgia believes it has a big future in the game. Wrestling is the national sport and they believe this makes them particularly suited to rugby as a team game.
He played for the Soviet Union back in the 70s but led the breakaway from the Soviets in 1990 before the political collapse because he believed Georgians had the natural qualities to become a rugby power in their own right.
The enthusiasm for the game is born out by an 80,000 crowd in Tibilisi to watch an international against Russia.
Nevertheless, there is still very little official money for development and the top players are all based in France. Whatever happens now they have put Georgia firmly on the rugby map.
Romania are now the real 'poor relations' of the European teams in this World Cup. Back in the 80s they were definitely the emerging nation with a couple of victories over Pool C rivals, Scotland, and seven wins over Italy between 1981 and 1990. All the talk then was about admitting them, not the Italians, to make it the Six Nations Championship.
The Caucescu regime was corrupt, brutal and repressive but it was wonderful for Romanian rugby. As team manager Robert Antonin honestly admits, 'Romania had the first professional rugby team - all our players were in the police or the army but all they did was play rugby.'
But when the hated Caucescu regime collapsed so did rugby. 'To be honest everybody is soccer mad and rugby is only about the sixth most popular sport,' says Antonin.
There are about 600 senior players in Romania plus around 30 playing professionally in France and another 200 playing for junior French clubs as amateurs.
A top club game in Romania will attract no more than 300 spectators and an international less than 2000 - a far cry from the 30,000 plus who watched when Jeremy Guscott made his international debut in Bucharest in 1989.
Nevertheless, the Romanians showed tremendous spirit against Italy before going down 24-18 in their opening pool match and they are determined to make life difficult when they face Scotland tomorrow night at Murrayfield.
Georgia and Romania have certainly made their mark, as have Tonga and Argentina, two more relatively poor rugby nations - by playing with pride and passion.
On the flip side countries such as England, Ireland and to a lesser degree even the hosts, France, who have spent millions getting ready for this tournament, have been lacklustre and totally lacking in the two 'Ps'.
On the evidence so far give me the poor old amateurs every time!