Georgia, Russia take fight to the field

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.”

In fact, it’s been 16 years since Russia bested Georgia in rugby. Many say the success of the Georgian team cannot be found in the poorly developed national league, but rather in the warlike character of the players. While the Russians traveled to South Africa to prepare for the match, Georgia invests scant money into developing the sport. The facilities in Georgia, which has been a member of the International Rugby Board since 1992, are poor, and local clubs are shoddy. Players often train in parks or on fields in “very bad conditions,” Lane said.

The game of “Lelo Burti” (Field Ball) has been played for centuries in Georgia between teams of neighboring villages, which used to set pitch between the creeks of two rivers. The goal was to carry the ball across the creek, which was the equivalent of making a try or a touchdown.

Nijaradze did not say much to explain the roots of the team's success, but rather squeezed his fist tightly and pounded his chest.

But Lane said he counts on the players, most of whom compete professionally in France and Romania, to arrive in good shape because they only have three or four days to train before games.

“We knew the game was politically important, and we tried hard to win,” Georgian national team player Goderzi Shvelidze said.

A day after the match, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili awarded the team the Order of Honor, thanking them for dedicating their victory to the memory of fallen soldiers.

"I do not want to politicize sports," Saakashvili told the team during the ceremony. "We should not carry hatred toward athletes and we do not have any. Sports are about friendship, but not a single Russian television station reported on your victory."

Meanwhile, Russian Head Coach Nikolay Nerush spoke of no hidden motives, only sports.

“We have good ties with the Georgian union and there are no negative feelings,” he said.

More than 5,000 Georgian fans traveled at least 10 hours to attend the match. On the bus ride home, the fans drank, sang and celebrated.

David Chaganava, 27, felt no tensions while departing for the game from the Georgian capital Tbilisi.

“The whole organization [of arranging travel to the event for fans] seemed as though the government was trying to motivate the people,” he said.

Chaganava said that this is more than a game, although in an ideal world sports and politics should best remain apart.

“I don’t know if this is possible, though,” he said with a smile.

M. Comins contributed to this report.

Editor's note: This story was updated to correct the photo credit.