Ancient game feeds Georgia’s rugby DNA


Georgia’s presence at their sixth consecutive Rugby World Cup tournament since 2003 is a special achievement given that they only joined the International Rugby Board (now World Rugby) in 1992, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

However, this should not be too much of a surprise: Georgia’s DNA is steeped in the rough ancient game called lelo burti, which translates as “field ball”.

The brutal traditional game places no limit on the number of participants in a game or how long it lasts. There is also no referee in sight – for a game with so few rules there is not really a need for one.

The game is still occasionally played in rural areas, including in the village of Shukhuti in the western region of Guria, where the annual game commemorates the victory of the Gurians in the battle against the Ottomans.

Every Easter, the village is divided into Upper Shukhuti and Lower Shukhuti, with the two teams then competing to try to get the black leather ball – handmade, filled with soil and weighing 16 kg – from one end of the village to the other .

A local priest starts the game by throwing the ball from the church steps into the crowd. Players form a giant scrum and then continue this grind for hours in the village; so right in the fold of the likes of Guram Papidze and Beka Gorgadze.

The winners carry the ball to a cemetery and place it on the grave of a villager who died in the previous year.

The rise of Georgian rugby in the 21st century has been astonishing with crowds of thousands lining up to watch matches in Tbilisi.

As a tribute to the ancient game, the word “lelo” is now used for three in rugby and the national team’s nickname is the Lelos.

They are seventh in the European rankings and 11th in the world and last November they delivered their best performance yet with a 13-12 victory against Wales in Cardiff.

With so many players in France’s top-14, there is hardly a team without at least one Georgian and those in the know say there may come a time when the Lelos can turn the existing order on its head.

At a World Cup they have not yet been able to progress beyond the group stages and this year will not be easier; Wales and Australia’s recent floundering may offer some hope.

Georgia’s opening game is against the Wallabies before they also take on Portugal and Fiji. The latter’s victory over England at Twickenham may cause a surprise.

Georgia will use the Cardiff result as proof they can thrive against Wales when they play the final group game in Nantes on October 7 – and they may just conjure up the performance that could earn them a place in the quarter-finals