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Georgia, Russia take fight to the field

The tensions between the two rivals motivate their rugby players.

Georgian rugby fans prepare for their country's match against Russia on March 20 in Trabzon, Turkey. (Louis Antoine Le Moulec/GlobalPost)

TRABZON, Turkey — “Georgia! Georgia!” the fans screamed, their voices jarring the seats of the 6,000-spectator stadium in Trabzon, Turkey, where Georgia and Russia faced off. With only a handful of Russian supporters in attendance, the stadium formed one large, flowing Georgian flag.

The Georgian rugby team, Lelos, creamed the Russians Saturday. Its whopping 36-8 victory in the last round of the European Nations Cup earned the team the top spot in Division One. Lelos will now face Argentina, England, Scotland and a playoff winner in Pool B for the World Cup next year in New Zealand.

Although both teams had already qualified for the World Cup before taking the pitch, for Georgia at least, the game's significance could be felt far off the field.

Tensions between Russia and Georgia remain high after a brief war in August 2008. The ensuing battle over perception of the conflict, marked by politicians openly lambasting each other on all sides, has resulted in the scheduling of such head-to-head sporting events on neutral soil. In March 2009 in Mariupol, Ukraine, the Georgians walloped the Russians 29-21 as the teams faced off for the first time since the armed conflict.

The zeitgeist is one of mixed feelings. While politicians try to remain circumspect about the game, most people are vocal about its significance.

Georgian Rugby Union President George Nijaradze said it's always a tough game between the teams despite friendly relations between the players because they are citizens of two rival countries.

“The boys know that all Georgia will watch this game and it’s a very big responsibility. This is enough of a motivation,” he said, adding that, “This is a special game. Yes, this is a very special game.”

When the Russian and Georgian rugby teams played for the first time after the brief war, both teams felt immense pressure to take home a victory. Although things were calmer this time around, Lelos Head Coach Tim Lane, who hails from Australia, said “there is a type of hatred from Georgia toward Russia because of the war two years ago and their history.”

And if mindset is a pivotal factor in how players perform, he added, then “we should play Russia every time.”