Akaki Tabutsadze and Davit Niniashvili will be potent threats at the Rugby World Cup in France
Georgian props have traditionally been the country’s best rugby export. The Top 14 and other parts of Europe are littered with ferocious scrummagers, imposing ball-carriers and terrific tight tacklers. However, a nation famed for its strong men – Rugby World is told this is due to years of defending their territory – has unlocked a new superpower: Georgia try machines.
Until last week, the country’s leading try-scorer was a forward. Admittedly Mamuka Gorgadze is bona fide legend around these parts and his longevity – he was lured out of retirement for the 2019 World Cup – is a testament to the former flanker but it doesn’t say masses about a country’s stock when a member of the pack is leading the way on the scoresheet.
Read more: Georgia Rugby World Cup squad
That has all changed now. Flying winger Akaki Tabutsadze stormed into No 1 spot against Romania before adding another try to his hugely impressive record in the 22-7 victory over USA in Tbilisi.
Tabutsadze bagged his 29th try in just 30 games, a prolific record any Tier 1 finisher would die to possess. Of course, Georgia don’t often face the highest quality opponents, their dominance in Rugby Europe has been well publicised and has helped Tabutsadze pad his stats but as we also know, they are desperate to face regular high-quality opponents… (Six Nations are you watching?)
Nonetheless, Tabutsadze has a real turn of pace and an eye for the line. Two key ingredients of a world class winger. He is set to take the World Cup by storm and Georgia’s Pool C opponents Wales and Australia, as well as Fiji, would be well advised to keep a close eye on the 26-year-old.
Another back three Lelos star, who is more heralded but also approaching his first World Cup, is full-back Davit Niniashvili. The 21-year-old was a teenage phenomenon and shows no sign of slowing down. His name generated by far the loudest cheer at the impressive Mikheil Meskhi Stadium, only matched when he was substituted late on.
Niniashvili shows no sign of slowing down
Niniashvili often looks like a representative player sharing the field with his schoolmates. So clearly a stand-out, often trying too hard to impose himself on a game. He was flawless in the air against the US and eager to make something happen.
He finally got his reward at the very start of the second period. Using his speed to dash from open to blind, ‘Nini’ as he is scythed through the American defence before putting in a big dive in the dead ball area in front of his adoring fans.
Georgia’s forward firepower is still the backbone of their game, and with the likes of Niniashvili’s Lyon team-mate Beka Saghinadze and last season’s Pau captain Beka Gorgadze still to return from injury they have plenty in the locker.
And now they have a cutting edge out wide that should be the perfect accompaniment. Brute force and brilliance. A trip to Scottish Gas Murrayfield is next for Georgia and 80 minutes against a high-flying Scotland will be a good litmus test of where they are.
It will certainly be a huge test for the Georgia try machines with Duhan van der Merwe, Kyle Steyn and Darcy Graham all in scintillating form on the wing.
Either way, there are more realistic hopes than ever before that a quarter-final in France is within their grasp.
Georgia try machines help Lelos to 22-7 USA win: Match Report
The 7pm kick-off did little to stifle the torrid Tbilisi heat which was upwards of 30 degrees and seemed to take its toll on the players in the early stages as both sides looked slightly lethargic in their play.
Kicking battles and poor execution appeared to be the only things on offer until the home side, who had been dictating possession and territory, finally got their act together in the USA 22. The Lelos, fully aware that this was just a World Cup warm-up, were intent to kick to the corner every time the USA were penalised rather than take an easy three points and their ambition paid off just after ten minutes.
The usually reliable rolling maul, under the instruction of Kiwi lineout coach Paul Tito, didn’t fire but instead the ball went through the hands towards the right wing where star full-back Davit Niniashvili flicked the ball to the prolific Akaki Tabutsadze.
Tabutsadze overtook Georgia legend Mamuka Gorgodze as the nation’s top try-scorer in last week’s 56-6 hammering of Romania and extended his lead at the top of the standings with a 29th try in just his 30th international appearance.
It was Niniashvili’s quick hands that gave him the space to dart over in the corner after ten minutes and that looked to be the kickstart Georgia needed as the maul finally got going and hooker Shalva Mamukashvili dotted down, fly-half Luka Matkava’s conversion making it 12-0 with nearly half-an-hour played.
However, the USA – who missed out on qualifying for the upcoming Rugby World Cup and are in a rebuilding phase under interim coach Scott Lawrence – showed plenty of mettle to fight their way back into the game.
A lovely bit of attacking shape created space on the right edge and wing Christian Dyer took full advantage before passing the ball back inside to tracking former Saracens scrum-half Ruben de Haas to score. Luke Carty’s conversion, amid Georgian boos and whistles, made it a five-point game.
Things got better for the visitors when Georgia were reduced to 14 on the stroke of the break, wing Alexander Todua awarded a yellow card after catching the chin of Eagles flanker Paddy Ryan, albeit from a stationary position with little force. The decision was referred to the TMO but a break down in communication meant a phone call had to be made to ensure Jaco Peyper made the right call.
With a man advantage, USA hammered away at the Georgia line but a promising maul was expertly defended by the Lelos who turned over the ball to ensure they went in 12-7 up.
And the momentum stayed with the hosts as soon as the second half started. Matkava’s inside ball set Niniashvili away with the Lyon star’s footwork ensuring he dived over the line to open up a 12-point buffer for Levan Maisashvili’s men.
The Eagles were plenty game, the planning for the future is already underway as shown by a debut for exciting 19-year-old centre Dominic Besag who came off the bench before the first half was up.
Besag has come straight from the U20 Trophy in Kenya and having picked up the game at five years old is now the USA’s second youngest debutant and Eagles fans will be hoping he can help lead the side all the way to the home World Cup in 2031, where a quarter-final is their ambitious aim.
Matkava’s reliable boot, his first penalty, put Georgia more than two converted scores out of reach and killed the contest at 22-7 with no further score despite plenty of energy from both sides.
For Georgia, it was another step well taken on the path to the World Cup. For the USA, it was a more than respectable effort given the embarrassment of last week’s thumping at the hands of Portugal. They are planning for the long-term. However, for Georgia the time is now.
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