Iain Morrison: Rugby thrives away from Six Nations glare

Away from the spotlight of the Six Nations, rugby in countries such as Georgia is thriving. Picture: SNS
Away from the spotlight of the Six Nations, rugby in countries such as Georgia is thriving. Picture: SNS
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WHILE Scotland were being put to the sword in Rome’s Olympic coliseum last weekend the Georgian XV was giving Russia the runaround in Tbilisi, thumping their neighbours and former soviet masters by a whopping 46-0, even if the visitors were weakened by having several top-class players competing in the Hong Kong sevens.

In light of the recent war between the two nations the match was held in a modest 30,000-seat arena that was easier to police than the city’s main 70,000-capacity stadium, which the Georgians could have sold out several times over.

Ahead of the grudge game, the president of the Georgian Rugby Union made television appeals for his countrymen not to threaten the Russian players or coaching staff and an army of stewards surrounding the pitch made sure.

Rugby is gaining popularity hand over fist in Georgia, only appropriate given the bruising nature of their play.

Around 23 new rugby grounds are being rolled out across the country, complete with miniature stadiums and artificial pitches alongside the grass ones.

It’s not immediately clear where the funding is coming from but one source pointed to the presence of a high-profile billionaire at the centre of Georgian rugby circles.

The Russian match was part of the European Nations Cup, the tournament comprising the six nations immediately below the Six Nations contenders.

Georgia top the ENC 1A division but they have still to travel to Ukraine to play their final match in June before they can claim the title.

However, Ukraine will be relegated to the 1B division regardless, despite easing past Portugal by 35-33 last weekend. They will be replaced by Belgium, who pipped Germany 30-29 away from home.

Spain beat former European powerhouse Romania 13-12 in front of a 10,000-strong crowd in Madrid, further highlighting the growth of the game. That victory enabled Spain to stay second behind Georgia in 1A.

Meanwhile, in 1B, little Moldova are second, hot on the heels of the Belgians.

It’s like lifting up a boulder and discovering a colony of ants. There is an entire world of rugby out there just across the water in Europe and it remains hidden to the vast majority of fans in this country. It is growing fast, both in popularity and quality.

In fact, below the Six Nations, there are seven divisions of European international rugby involving a whopping 35 countries.

Georgia sit atop the pyramid while, at the opposite end of the scale, Azerbaijan are at the foot of the three-country ENC 3 division, trailing behind both Slovakia and Bosnia/Herzegovina.

European rugby below the Six Nations is organised by FIRA, a Paris-based organisation that, according to their cheery director Gilles Bizot, is run by just two officials including himself.

So, would he like to see the concept of promotion/relegation extended to the Six Nations itself or, like King Louis in The Jungle Book, have Georgia reached the top and have to stop?

“No,” is the simple reply from Bizot. “Georgian rugby is not nearly as strong as Italian rugby. In a one-off game the Georgians might beat Italy or Scotland but there is a huge gap between the two nations,” he adds.

“Anyway, it is a matter for the Six Nations, which is a closed competition, not for FIRA. Georgia could one day play in the Six Nations but not at the moment. There are no discussions along those lines.”

Scots fans will no doubt breathe a sigh of relief. Georgia are doughty competitors on the field and neither Scotland nor Italy would relish trips to Tbilisi.

And the Six Nations is about so much more than just the rugby.

The tournament generates about £80 million in revenue each year – in effect a mini-World Cup – and it remains unique by dint of the fact that it attracts huge travelling supports.

While Rome, Dublin, London, Paris, Edinburgh and Cardiff are relatively easy to get to, Tbilisi is, according to those who have been there, a world away both geographically and culturally.