Resounding Win over Germany Brings Birthday Cheer to Georgian Coach Haig

Last year was a historic success for Georgian rugby, and 2016 didn’t start badly either as Georgia thrashed Germany 59-7 in their first competitive match of the year at Avchala Stadium on February 6.

The performance and result helped New Zealander head coach Milton Haig, who recently renewed his contract, to celebrate his birthday on a sun-soaked afternoon in Tbilisi’s northern outskirts.

The visit of the Germans was Georgia’s first match since the heroics of last autumn’s World Cup where a third-place finish in their pool secured automatic qualification for the 2019 edition in Japan.

Accordingly, a capacity crowd greeted the Lelos albeit in a stadium that holds only around 3,000.

Fans were presented with a line-up missing some of Georgia’s big names in recent years such as Mamuka Gorgodze and Merab Kvirikashvili, but containing young star of the World Cup Vasil Lobzhanidze at scrum half and experienced locks Giorgi Chkhaidze and Giorgi Nemsadze, among other established names.

Germany arrived in Tbilisi bottom of the European Nations Cup group at the halfway stage with only one point, and having fallen to a 64-8 defeat in last year’s meeting in Heusenstamm. In comparison, with five wins from five last year, Georgia topped the group by six points prior to kick-off and some were anticipating a winning margin that could surpass Georgia’s largest ever win, a 98-3 triumph over Czech Republic in 2007.

However, in the early stages there was no suggestion of such a demolition materializing as Georgia suffered a surprising early setback.

In the 5th minute, just as Georgia were launching an encouraging break, wing Giorgi Pruidze’s misjudged chip was clutched gleefully by Germany’s Oliver Paine who raced half the length of the pitch unchallenged to give the visitors a shock lead, sending the handful of German fans into short-lived delirium.

Carlos Soteras Merz then dispatched a difficult conversion to hand Germany a 7-0 advantage.

Predictably, the Georgian response was ferocious and they drew level five minutes later. A few meters from the foot of the German posts, the ball broke off Lobzhanidze before Beka Gorgadze steamed his way to the line for the home side’s first try of the day, after which center Lasha Malaguradze made no mistake with the resulting conversion.

Germany had started the match with some promise in an attacking sense, but when it came to defending against Georgia’s notoriously strong forward line, this was a mismatch of David v Goliath proportions.

In the 25th minute, the Georgian pack drove forward like a steam train and, had Mikheil Nariashvili not stooped to touch down and score, the German defence might have ended up in Mtskheta.

Malaguradze notched another conversion and soon Georgia’s superiority became clear as a flowing move ended with Malaguradze passing to Nemsadze for another Georgian score in the 29th minute.

The conversion attempt was wayward on this occasion but Malaguradze didn’t have long to wait for another chance as a Georgian lineout eventually fell the way of Anton Peikrishvili whose converted try in the 40th minute gave the hosts a 26-7 advantage at the break.

After the interval, the German resistance waned further under the pressure of Georgia’s relentless push for more tries, of which there were another five in the second period.

With 50 minutes played, flanker Giorgi Tkhilaishvili burst through the German try line despite the attentions of Pascal Fischer, with Malaguradze converting to extend the Georgia advantage to 33-7.

Seven minutes later, after the Germans again succumbed to the merciless forward power of the Georgian scrum, Lasha Lomidze notched his first try of the day and he would add another in the 65th minute in similar circumstances.

The score of the afternoon followed in the 71st minute as Zurab Zhvania, best known for his uncompromising physical power, embarked on a sensational run of which most backs would be proud before releasing the ball for Lasha Khmaladze to touch down. The try, which after being converted by Malaguradze gave Georgia a 54-7 lead, was later named among World Rugby’s top five tries of the weekend.

Although the well-beaten visitors were now more than ready for a post-match bath and beer, there was still time for Georgia to add a ninth try courtesy of a dogged run and score by Shalva Sutiashvili in the final minute.

Head coach Haig afterwards expressed his excitement about Georgia’s blend of youth and experience which had been at the heart of a predictably comfortable success.

Tougher tests await the Lelos with a visit to Portugal on February 13 before they host Spain at the Mikheil Meskhi Stadium in Tbilisi on February 27.

Alastair Watt

11 February 2016 19:44