Amashukeli will take charge of Ireland-Italy on 27 February
Before play can begin on the first day of the Seville Sevens, Georgian referee Nika Amashukeli reflects on his playing days. He’s in Spain on official duty, but the 27-year-old wasn’t always destined to hold a whistle.
“I was a crash-ball centre,” he begins, before jumping to the other side of the ball. “But I was more defensive, rather than attacking. That was our structure – our team was more of a defensive team. So I would take any chance to smash your ribs if you were coming towards me! Even if it was a bit of play-tackling or something. Sometimes I would have problems with referees but I enjoyed the defensive side.
“I was always physically big. Even now, as a referee, I am physically big. So I was a tackler!”
On 27 February, Amashukeli will be in the middle of everything at the Aviva Stadium. The first referee from outside the traditional Tier One unions to take charge of a Six Nations match, he has come a long way from the on-field skirmishes of his time with the Giqi club or in the Georgian age-grade sides.
In fact, Ireland has already played a big part in Amashukeli’s journey. As a child searching for his passion, he tried sports by the score. There was the nationally-popular route of grappling with judo. He didn’t really like it. Then he splashed into swimming but the fit wasn’t natural. By the time he got to football, and he could get by as a goalkeeper, he was comfortable enough to settle.
In 2007, his father almost pleaded with Nika to just sit still and watch this new sport on the telly. But rugby? Pfff. What did he know about rugby? The first ten minutes of that match between Georgia and Ireland in the Rugby World Cup were very frustrating for him.
By the last ten minutes, he was pleading with a higher power for Georgia to snatch a legendary win…
Ireland squeaked by in that one, 14-10. But by the final whistle rugby had gained another acolyte. Amashukeli had informed his father that he’d be leaving football behind, without ever having actually touched a rugby ball. And after joining Giqi, he says, he knew it would be a sport he would be part of for his whole life. And so began dreams of climbing the ladder.
However this game can exact a physical cost, regardless of your ambitions.
“After getting called up for the under-age teams, of course I was thinking of the international team,” Amashukeli tells Rugby World. “A lot of people around me, the players, liked me. Coaches liked me. All was going well. But look, (you get) injuries on injuries. Especially with head injuries, we know how severe they can be and it really affected my preparations, it really affected my mental health at that time.
“My mother said to me, ‘If you’re not going to die, I’m going to die!’ Those were the words that sort of stroked my mind and I decided to (stop playing). It wasn’t easy because refereeing at that time wasn’t a prestigious profession in Georgia. It wasn’t in the high end and at that time a lot of people didn’t trust the referee, so it wasn’t an easy decision.
“But it worked out. And throughout my career people have seen that the profession is very prestigious. You get to travel a lot. You get to visit legendary stadiums, work with other referees, high-profile and high-performance players, and all this kind of stuff. So I pretty much raised the bar of this profession in Georgia and I am very happy to see that it can affect other referees as well.”
By the age of 20, Amashukeli said he had already suffered five concussions. He’d also broken an ankle. There was a knee problem. and the toll of coming back grew harder to bear each time. He felt it was becoming “harder to breathe” with the difficulty of staging fightbacks over and over – motivation was on the wane and clearly those dear to him worried.
That love of the game lingered, though. He jokes that he was too young to go into coaching by then, so the option was to pocket some cards and brush up on the law book.
Where the paths of aspiration and inspiration cross also includes one match official. You see, the referee that day in 2007 when Georgia ran Ireland close was Wayne Barnes. Over a decade later, Amashukeli worked with that very man. As he explains: “It’s a very symbolic story for me, because that first game for me watching, the referee was Wayne Barnes. And 13 years after, we did a match together for the Autumn Nations Cup, with Scotland and France.”
Fans outside of Georgia have seen higher and higher profile matches come under Amashukeli’s whistle. Lately, there have been European matches and World Rugby Sevens Series action. In November, he oversaw Ireland’s win over Japan in Dublin.
On the first weekend of the Six Nations he will serve as Mike Adamson’s assistant in Paris, for France-Italy. In round three, he will run the show at the Aviva, backed up by Matt Carley and Christophe Ridley.
It is a special thing to be selected, he says. And it won’t go unmentioned that he is blazing a trail. He will be a Georgian operating within the Six Nations tournament.
So what’s the big career ambition for the full-time official?
He tells us: “I’d never dream of what I’ve already achieved. But look, I think the dream of any referee is to be part of the Rugby World Cup. I never dreamed in my life of making millions or of fancy cars or fancy villas. I have only one dream: to be a part of the World Cup. I was even joking back when I was playing that I hope (Georgia) take me just as a water-carrier!
“The World Cup impacted my mind so much when I first watched it and then of course following through the next ones it impacted my mind even more. Watching highlights, it kind of strikes my heart. It’s kind of nostalgic. So the World Cup is special.
“The Six Nations is coming and there are plenty of things I have achieved that if you told me a few years ago ‘You’ll be doing this’, I’d say there’s no chance. I’m grateful and humble and I appreciate everyone who has given me an opportunity and who has wished me well.”
Amashukeli is aware of the prestige of the Six Nations; the heritage. The tournament fires the imagination of sports fans outside of the Big Six, lest we forget. And he knows what a big deal it is to be a Georgian involved. Oh yeah, and there’s the increase in scrutiny of officials.
He is just giddy for the chance. It’s time now to dig into preparation and start working with the teams of officials who help a game tick. Well, after the sevens…
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