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Brendan Gallagher: Georgia on my mind as the cosy club stick together

Mamuka GorgodzeLacking a degree in applied mathematics I only look at the IRB world rankings once a year and that is in the first week of January when Test rugby lays dormant and you can finally get an accurate snapshot of the exact state of the nations.

Most of the attention centres on the pecking order among the big-hitters – and to these eyes the rankings are currently bang on  – but for once let’s scroll all the way down to Finland in 101st and last position and see what’s happening in the rest of the rugby world.

The major success stories first. Check out Georgia, Moldova and Belgium and their steady progress up the charts. Georgia we have known about for a good while, not least their conveyor belt of rugged props (not to mention nightclub bouncers around Europe), but rather lost in the plethora of November rugby was a massive breakthrough 16-15 win for the ‘Lelos’ over Samoa, their first victory over a top ten nation and a victory which lifts them to 16th in the rankings.

A capacity 15,000 turned up at Georgia rugby’s  Mikheil Meskhi Stadium – they save the 40,000 national stadium for matches against Russia – and what’s more victory was achieved without a raft of their more experienced players although happily Montpellier’s Mamuka Gorgodze was on parade and a mighty presence in the backrow.

“This victory is very important for players, coaches, fans and the Union,” said Gorgodze. “Now we can say all our efforts have paid off. The fans had a special influence on the players and I want to thank them all. We won this match together. We are ready and it would be great if we play against such teams more often.”

Exactly. Quite why one of the Home Unions, on a rota every four years, aren’t required to travel to Tbilisi every November to play the Lelos in an annual marquee game is beyond me although clearly money will be at the root of it. Amongst other things it would be a belting match, great TV and there could even be an upset or two.

The ‘cosy club’ is still fiendishly difficult to join and it remains unclear how a team like Georgia are meant to make the leap from tier two to one. There is no pathway, no promotion and relegation from the Six Nations. No equality.

Moldova? Hardly prime rugby country you would think but this largely Romanian speaking country appears to love the game and their best players are beginning to spread their wings. Hooker Dumitru Arhip is with the Ospreys, prop Vadim Cobîlas is a muscular presence in the Sale front row while his brother Maxim is reputed to be heading this way.

Most of the top Russian professional teams now have a Moldovan representative in their ranks and young former Esher fly-half Craig Felston – of Moldovan stock – has been a major acquisition making his debut in the 50-20 win over Sweden in a recent World Cup qualifier and then chipping in with ten points during their 30-15 victory over Germany. That last result means they still have a chance of qualifying for the 2015 European Nations Cup (ENC) and play against the likes of Georgia, Russia and Romania.

Little Belgium have already made that leap and although the going has been tough a 17-13 home defeat against Georgia in February showed them at their best.  The Zwarte Duivels (Black Devils) are beginning to tap into the many Belgian qualified players with junior clubs in France with no fewer than 12 of their squad playing there. A useful resource that and two of their youngsters – Piron Guillaume at Pau and Tofs Jens at Racing Metro – have earned professional contracts.

Alas missing from the roll of honour are Cyprus who have just reeled off a world record 21 Test victories, the vast majority against IRB member nations, but because they have not yet been granted IRB membership they do not yet warrant a world ranking. Harsh but, hopefully, a temporary situation.

And the biggest failures? China languishing in 66th, eight positions behind their bitter rivals Chinese Taipei, have to be strong contenders.

What has happened to Chinese rugby? Twenty years ago I remember being smuggled into the Red Army Physical Education training camp in Guangzhao, posing as a Hong Kong RFU technical director alongside George Simpkin, and was blown away by the resources, facilities and talent available. It seemed a matter of time before the Chinese Rugby Revolution took off. A million soldiers playing the game twice a week in five years’ time was the promise being made by the military’s top brass at one of our ten-course banquets after training.

But nothing. For whatever reason the powers that be suddenly cooled in their enthusiasm for the game. They switched their attention to a much more modest Sevens programme but the Chinese have proved strangely inept at the shorter version of the game and the only hope for them now would seem the possibility of the fresh impetus that rugby becoming an Olympic sport might provide. For the time being China remains a rugby desert. Which means 25 percent of the world’s population are ignorant of the game.

One of the saddest declines over the years has been Ivory Coast, now in 47th position. This was a spirited team which qualified for the 1995 World Cup in South Africa where they showed glimpses of real talent against France and Tonga although that 89-0 thrashing in their opener against Scotland was a painful experience.

The horrific spinal injury to Max Brito in that final game against Tonga struck hard at the morale of a small rugby nation but disgracefully Ivory Coast had to wait another 39 months before the international rugby community offered them another game, a 1999 World Cup qualifier against Namibia. Did nobody have a plan, did anybody actually want them to improve? By 1998 the moment was gone, the door had been slammed shut again.

The West Africans have been on the back foot ever since a situation compounded by civil war and economic problems. Back in France, the mother country as far as Ivorian rugby is concerned, there are still a decent number of Ivorian-born or qualified players washing around the leagues but with a hard earned contract in their pocket their loyalties first and foremost lie with their clubs. Pepito Elhorga decided to pursue the French route and won 15 caps while utility backs Jean-Maurice Oulouma and Silvère Tian have both been involved in the Oyonnax success story.

Still just about hanging onto the fringes of international respectability in 30th position are Zimbabwe but what a painful waste of a rugby nation. Zimbabwe used to regularly play the Lions and appeared in both the 1987 and 1991 World Cups before the presidency of Robert Mugabe began to make life itself, let alone sport, very difficult.

Rugby players and their families have joined the general exodus heading over the Beltbridge spanning the Limpopo into South Africa and beyond. Ray Mordt, Gary Teichmann, Adrian Garvey, Bobby Skinstad, Tonderai Chavhanga, Kennedy Tsimba,  Tendai ‘Beast’ Mtawarira, Brian Mujati, David Denton, Pieter Dixon, Nils Mordt, Scott Gray, Paul Johnstone, Andy Marinos, David Pocock, Takudzwa Ngwenya have gone.

Stand-out Exeter Chiefs back rower Dave Ewers is the latest. At various times in recent years a ‘Zimbo Exiles XV’ would have been distinctly useful.

There are still some real frustrations and anomalies out there. Kenya have got a cracking Sevens side these days, they beat mighty New Zealand at Wellington in the semi-final of an IRB world Series competition earlier this year before losing narrowly to England.

Yet they rank a dismal 51st in the longer version of the game. The Kenyans are much better than that and although it’s easy to understand why they concentrate on Sevens it shouldn’t be at the exclusion of 15s.

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