Here come #Georgia!

The Georgian national #Rugby team, or 'The Lelos' as they're more commonly known in Georgia, introduced themselves to the world of rugby as serious contenders back in 2015 at the #Rugby World Cup. In it they finished 3rd in their group, beating Tonga in their opening game before edging out Namibia in a close fought 17-16 win. This 3rd place finish in their group gained them automatic qualification for the 2019 tournament in Tokyo and they haven't looked back since. The Lelos are currently considered as a tier-two rugby nation and compete in the Rugby Europe Championship, winning the tournament in 2008, 2009, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016 and in their most recent outing.

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In the penultimate game of this year's competition against Russia in Tbilisi, 52,000 people attended the game. This attendance shows the massive following the team has acquired, posing the question, why aren't they playing with the big boys yet?

'A top 10 nation within 5 years'

Georgia has the backing of former prime minister and Georgia's richest man Bidzina Ivanishvili who is bankrolling rugby in the country. He has long-term aims and has been investing millions in grassroots player development and establishing state of the art facilities for the national team. With his backing Georgia won the right to host the Under 20's Rugby World Cup this year which turned out to be a huge success, seeing Georgia beat Argentina 26-25. They only lost out to Ireland narrowly in the knock out after a contentious red card left them a man down.

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The competition left Georgia with 27 new state of the art facilities and proved to the world that Georgia is not just a flash in the pan. Bidzina Ivanishvili said back in 2015 that "we want to be a top 10 nation within 5 years." The Lelos are well on their way to achieving Bidzina's objective, positioned 12th in the new IRB world rankings released last month.

The 6 nations: promotion/relegation?

The 6 nations is arguably the most exciting rugby competition outside of the world cup. It is unpredictable and highly competitive, with nearly every team having a chance of winning the competition. Matches between England, Scotland, Wales, France and Ireland are exhilarating and can go either way. Each nation has had its fair share of tournament wins and has all proven their pedigree on the world stage. The only country without any tournament success is Italy and they have as much chance of winning the competition as you do of pronouncing Merab Kvirikashvili's name. Merab Kvirikashvili is Georgia's most capped player and one of the main advocates for Georgia's inclusion in the competition.

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Italy has won 12 out of 90 games since their inclusion in 2000 and won a total of 0 games last year, finishing last in the competition. In the current format, this means nothing, as they will compete again this year irrespective of how they perform. The threat of relegation may awaken the Azzurri and help drive the standard of Italian rugby to new places, which could hinder Georgia's qualification aspirations. But they deserve the chance! Georgia is currently ranked 12th, 2 places above the Azzurri and would provide a thrilling end to the 6 nations!

Financially viable?

At the end of the day money talks. Whether Georgia is good enough to earn their spot in the 6 nations is only part of the question. For the IRB it needs to be a financially viable venture to take on the sleeping giants from the caucuses. The current 6 teams in the 6 nations are situated in the heart of Western Europe and provide fans with ideal travel destinations. They can have a pint (or 10) beside the Eiffel Tower or the Trevi Fountain all within convenient travelling distance. The draw of dumplings and soup in Tbilisi's narrow backstreets is not comparable to the culinary delights of Paris or Rome. Georgia may not have the same charm as some European cities but it is an untapped market for the IRB. Georgia's average attendances in Tbilisi are upwards of 50,000 for test matches reflecting its strong rugby culture. The team's nickname 'The Lelos' comes from Lelo Burti a traditional Georgian sport with strong similarities to rugby. 'Lelo' has its roots in pagan times and has been adopted as the Georgian word for 'try'. Some of Georgia's weird and whacky customs would be a welcomed change to the 6 nations which has appeared all too inclusive to the larger rugby world in recent years. Georgia's inclusion would help the development of the sport in the country and in turn, would develop the brand of European rugby as a sport for all.

If the IRB isn't quite convinced that Georgia would produce the same revenue as the likes of Italy, well don't worry, Bidzina Ivanishvili has it covered. He has promised to cover the costs of Georgia's inclusion - if the IRB needed any extra incentives!