Watching rugby in Georgia: U20s Championship finals day

World Rugby’s tournaments have a festival feel with the final day actually comprising six games from two stadiums in Tbilisi. Clogger and I walked an hour to the Meskhi stadium from downtown to see things from a Georgian fans point of view. The hurried purchase of home nation shirts, scavaging the few remaining bottles of water available and elbowing our way past nut and seed vendors set the early fan experience.

Georgia V Ireland

Are props born and not made? The other way around? Georgian props appear to be churned off the production line as fully formed, 35 year old knarled and bearded spherical scrummagers. Ireland had enough technical skill and ability to close out the ninth place final, but if Georgia are going to follow Argentina’s path into top tier international game a solid set piece, ferocious rucking and phase play geared to get their props careering into centres will force some teams into submission while building a case.

Without an aggressive crowd not quite warmed up and with an earful of sound whiteboard drills, Ireland started better. It’s clear tier one nations have an advantage in more developed skills with Ireland able to secure a constant stream of possession. The clear sense of purpose of their international structure saw a neat wrap arounds and slick passing seen in their full international team for a well worked try by fullback Alan Tynan on twenty minutes.

A crowd fired on mainly by sunshine and ubiquitous sunflower seeds in a baked concrete bowl of a stadium was never likely to help Ireland. A fierce five meter defensive scrum, leaving tractor marks in the turf, flicked a switch to phase after phase of pick and goes and passes to heavy forwards running at backs mixed with kicks though the middle and commitment to dive on loose balls. Like South Africa and France, a lot of rugby seems to be played through scrum half in Georgia and Gela Aprasidze’s probing set up a prop special try and a penalty going into half time.

Fresh from a half time drilling, two quick tries from Irish close quarter play should have wrapped things up. Crank up the engine room in Georgia though, and belief flows. A fierce din enveloping the bowl with a crowd scenting blood willed Aprasidze over the line from beyond half way with a defence in retreat fearing more physical punishment. It’s probably one for the future to address, but a series of scrums Georgia attempted to milk for a penalty went the other way, consolidating a six point victory for Ireland. It sent a message that game management trumps emotional and physical blood and thunder.

France V South Africa

The full international between these sides on Saturday represented a play-off for which full international side has deteriorated the most over the last few years, evidently France after a 37-15 South Africa win. These under twenties, therefore, represented a sighter for their respective futures.

On first half performances, it appeared a movement away from the current, maligned, French bulk game and more flair, at least in patches, with faster and lighter forwards making ground and offloading attempted as default. This yielded the first try after 27 minutes with nuggety hooker Mauvaka recipient of a swiftly moved line out maul. Symptomatic of French sides playing away though, they slipped off their game plan and a typically direct South African pack started to assert themselves.

Looking for something more substantial at half time, we got involved in the hot dog and cured pork stand and waited there for about half an hour while orders were shouted across in Georgian. Hunger got the best of me and it seems risking burnt nipples leaning over the hot plate to mime an order is the only way to get things done. Bottled water is the only non-insane drink to be attempting in mid-afternoon sun, virtuous, but it doesn’t quite wash out the taste of rendered pork fat.

South African grew into this game with a more linked up performance than the French had followed in the first half. The best solution to racial quotas in South African sport is surely one where the squad is picked on merit, matching the demographic of wider society. This one certainly went some way to doing this with an athletic back division representative of the rainbow nation bolted onto traditional heft up front. As French cohesiveness evaporated, fly half Libbok punished through both long range kicking as well as having the luxury of time running the game ball in hand – though typical suffocating forward play put France out of this one.

Full time 37-15 to South Africa, same result as the full international, but heading in totally different directions.

England v New Zealand

This is a Gold Silver game across all formats in World Rugby in 2017, but even that rating masks vast differences between born rugby natives from New Zealand and a well organised and talented English team that has skills and physicality still to develop.

Any real sort of drinking on days like this in Tbilisi can only safely be attempted following 1800 and beer seemed appropriate for the final. Queue time for a Natakhtari lager was long, but only through chronically low supply than high demand. At GEL 3, less than a British Pound, boozing is definitely cost effective though alcohol isn’t the scene it is in established rugby countries and local supporters create the cauldron atmosphere on water alone. If I had my time again, I would have taken in wine and avoided queuing in the concrete bowels of the stadium and missing the haka.

While New Zealand stormed into the final swatting teams aside, England needed to hang on in games, a pattern fully evident in the first half. The All Blacks’ domination of number one ranking in full internationals is though strong core skills across all players with forwards passing and drawing men and backs swatting tacklers aside. The Baby Black wing Faingaanuka in particular demonstrated the full spectrum of tactics to rule the left wing. Despite it all, the fundamentals of scrummaging highlighted the gulf in class and all action hooker Asafo Aumua took the first of his three tries as well as showing off a hooking masterclass in the tight.

England had won two previous games against Australia and South Africa chasing the game with quick taps, fast hands and industry through the middle, the only way they were going to get back into this one, though fatally undermined though knock ons and execution errors created through work rate and physicality in defence. Number eight Zach Mercer and Fly half Max Malins had shone in earlier games, though neither could impose themselves here in a 64-17 defeat.

How many of each team were missing in Tbilisi was a slightly taboo, almost unspoken sub-narrative of this game. New Zealand had Reiko Ioane and Jordie Barrett eligible, but required for a full test series against the British Lions back home. England had five players with Eddie Jones on England’s two test series in Argentina, albeit a tour itself of a development theme. England’s past performance in this tournament suggests otherwise, though on this game and from the team’s graduates, New Zealand’s new intake is ready to go at full international, England have a bit to go yet.

More from Georgia

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