In the land of wrestling monsters, Georgia's Davit niniashvili is the posterboy for adventurous back play.
He’s got more steps than a military tattoo, sure, but there is plenty more to Davit Niniashvili’s game. There’s the aerial patrolling. The distribution. The willingness to work. The bravery in defence. Even some contortion if he ever loses balance.
Ask the Georgian about certain skills in his game though, and he cannot bite his tongue. “My kicking is f****** s***!” he blurts back at Rugby World with a grin.
This, to be clear, is the language of a 21-year-old who has an incredibly high ceiling in our sport but who looks at his game differently than perhaps the rest of us do (often slack-jawed, impressed).
And while he may be glib here, when really we know he has been working hard at his club Lyon to get even better and we’ve seen him create a long-range try for himself with a grubber kick from the tee, the dig at his own nudging offers a chance to find out more about the backstory of one of rugby’s most exciting talents.
Back-three star Niniashvili tells us first of his skill-set: “When I began in rugby I didn’t know kicking. Because before, I played at seven and six when I was young. So when I then moved I’d just one year of playing at 15. I chose this because my idol is Israel Folau, I love how he plays.”
Fans of Lyon Olympique Universitaire will be more than happy with the return they have had from Niniashvili over the past two years. He has, frankly, flown and in early 2023 he earned one of Midi Olympique’s ‘Oscars’, a reward for his superb performances in red and black. As they added in print: ‘Better than anyone, perhaps, the Lelo embodies the progress of his people.’
As well as the fine displays for Lyon, the French paper is, of course, referring to recent excellence for Georgia, the Lelos. In wins against Italy and Wales in 2022, he was frightening from full-back.
For Georgia’s second try against Italy last year, he confidently claimed a kick before popping opposition knees with his footwork and buzzing down the right touchline; he then passed inside to set up the score. He went a metre close in the build-up to another score in that first half, having again claimed flying ball before setting off down the right again. His attacking endeavour was dazzling.
And so we wonder how it came to be that this alacritous back sprung from the land of the monsters; how the most talked-about star in the Georgian game comes not in the form of a grizzled front-rower but of young Davit.
On his biography, the man himself tells us: “I have one sister and mother, with Mum and my father separating when I was six years old. She worked as a kindergarten teacher and I was there while she worked. My father moved to Belarus around six years ago and has another family there. He was never a rugby player. Just me in my family.
“When I was eight years old, I was in school and we had maths class. My first trainer, Davit Tskhvediani, came into class and gave us invites. I’d seen rugby games and I was interested, so I told my friends I would go and train with him. After I was 12, I moved in with him, and then from there to Lyon (in 2021).
“After a few years I began watching the Georgian Rugby Union because before I had never seen them, because as a kid I wasn’t thinking I would go on to be a professional rugby player. But after a few years I felt it. And after that I was watching Georgian players who had played Super Rugby or Top 14.
“I was good in school. I was strong. But my coach, he made me love rugby. When I first entered rugby, my uncle didn’t like it. He didn’t like it, my mother didn’t like it. It was just me who liked it. My trainer would sometimes speak to my mother and my uncle about me, because he had seen my play and saw potential in how I played. I think he made me love the game of rugby.
“My uncle wanted me to do maths because I was strong in maths. My uncle liked people to be educated, intelligent. Before about 2010, nobody thought rugby was an intelligent sport. But now my mother and my uncle think rugby is a very complicated sport!
“I have forgotten it all now but I think the maths helps me when I’m on the field. Because I am counting everything on the field, I am using maths on the field. That helps to see things. And after the games, I will watch it back for my mistakes, I will think about them and then I will work on them at training.”
Back on kicking, he name-checks former All Blacks and now Samoa ten Lima Sopoaga for all his help in the last two years at Lyon, saying that the playmaker “gave me everything” when it comes to kicking technique. He loves that, Niniashvili adds, because he sees it as an example to follow. When he is into his 30s, he says, he looks forward to passing on his knowledge like Sopoaga has done.
The idiom of a rising tide lifting all boats comes to mind here. There is a real buzz about young Georgians climbing ever higher in the sport. And while we have seen the near ubiquitousness of Georgian props in the Top 14, Niniashvili has been moved to show love for the back-line starlets coming through. After Georgia played South Africa recently in the U20 World Cup, the Lyon flyer heaped praise on the backs who played in that game.
As he says, “It’s good competition for me. If a coach has three players who can play 15 or 14, the players can all grow up in that competition.”
Team-mate Shalva Mamukashvili has seen plenty of rugby around the world, having played in Georgia, England, France and Russia, and is closing in on 100 caps at hooker. When he is asked to talk about this younger generation of players, he is certain that Niniashvili has played his part too.
“Two years ago he was playing local rugby,” Mamukashvili says, “and now he holds one of the Midi Olympique Oscars in France. He’s a key player, one of the best players in the Georgia team.
“So when the kids look at that, they think it’s achievable that they can play side by side with him. Anything is achievable if you work hard, have talent and a little bit of luck – this is necessary in sport, of course, because one injury may change the whole career of a young player. But this gives huge motivation for the kids to play rugby and it gives us a good product to feed the Georgian national team.
“There was a time when there was almost no team in the Top 14 without a Georgian prop. For example in 2017, there were six forwards in Montpellier. But now there are backs playing in the top level, having great experiences and this also balances our game.”
It feels like an exciting time for new attacking threats in rugby generally. In a recent issue of the magazine, a youth special, Niniashvili featured alongside a cast of exciting kids, with plenty of backs in the mix.
Asked about that kind of competition, the Georgian knows of talent out there. “I like how Ange Capuozzo plays,” he says. “I like the 15 (Louis Bielle-Biarrey) of Bordeaux, he was born in 2003 and I love how he plays. I like Ethan Dumortier who plays with me and he has try-scoring class. It’s good that we have competition with each other.
“We do push each other. When I play against Ange Capuozzo – in Italy versus Georgia and Toulouse against Lyon – I am always in competition with him. I don’t know what he thinks about it but I compete with him!
“Me and others always compete to be the best in our position in the world.”
Off the field, Niniashvili has considered how coaching rugby could be part of his life post-playing. But so much focus right now is on the performance that his true release from it all comes from cooking.
“I love this,” he says. He lives alone in Lyon but will get others over. And his specialty, well, it has to be traditional Georgian cuisine. Khachapuri is at the top of that list – he lights up at the mere mention of the ‘Georgian pizza’, like a cheese-filled boat of bread.
“In Lyon I always cook for (Georgia team-mate) Beka Saghinadze and I think he loves my food!” he tells us.
That link to home is clearly very important. He is so confident in the way he plays, and he is so willing to throw himself into talking English here, that it is easy to forget he is so young and that only two years ago he was mixing it with amateur athletes in his homeland. But there are hints at the pride he feels representing his nation abroad and on the biggest stages. Another example of this is when we discuss just how he ended up in Lyon back in 2021.
His agent, Levan Ghvaberidze, had put together a highlights reel of his best moments. This is fairly regular stuff for the ambitious kids, but we are used to seeing such compilations underscored by punchy hip-hop or driving, anthemic rock. Niniashvili cannot recall if there was any music under his vid, but if he was to choose today, he tells us, he would want some Georgian tunes.
Of course, it is the next highlights we want to see. Having recently broken his foot, we know kicking is still a focus. But what else does he want to work on?
“I love the players who have steps – ankle-breakers. I work on this, to step away with my speed. And after my recent injury, we will see how it goes.”
It will go well, we bet. For all the talk of idols and competitions, it is joyous to see Niniashvili breaking new ground.