Georgia coach Milton Haig believes that hosting the World Rugby U20 Championship 2017 can be the catalyst for rugby to enjoy even more growth across a country where it is already hugely popular.
Haig, the New Zealander who was appointed the Georgian national coach after RWC 2011, has overseen the most successful period in the Lelos’ history, including their best finish of third place in their pool at RWC 2015 to ensure direct qualification for Japan 2019.
Contained within his current squad are a number of players who have come through the Georgia U20 team that won the U20 Trophy in 2015 and then more than held their own on their debut in the U20 Championship in Manchester last year in finishing 10th.
The most famous of them is scrum-half Vasil Lobzhanidze (pictured), who became the youngest player in Rugby World Cup history in 2015 when he took to the field before his 19th birthday, but in total 28 players have graduated from the U20 to test rugby and one from the U20 Championship.#
Haig included nine of those U20 graduates in his starting line-up for Georgia’s victory over Belgium in their Rugby Europe Championship opener last weekend. There were two more on the bench with three new graduates created in Tornike Mataradze, Otari Giorgadze and Giorgi Tsutskridize.
The chance for Georgia’s next generation to play on home soil and showcase their capital city Tbilisi and other host city Kutaisi to the watching world and their own supporters is something Haig knows is an opportunity not to be missed.
“It’s massive,” Haig admitted. “On a recent visit to New Zealand all the guys I spoke to were aware that the World Rugby U20 Championship was going to be in Georgia this year and were asking how everything was going and whether people would come to watch.
“I said ‘there’s no doubt if there is a game of rugby on here people will watch it that’s for sure’.
“It is a huge achievement for a burgeoning rugby nation like ourselves for World Rugby to have the confidence in us to host the tournament.
“In terms of profile it is going to be great, it will enable us to keep driving numbers towards our game. The more people you get playing the game, the more x-factor players you get coming through.
“We are only a population of four-and-a-half million, the same as New Zealand, so we need more kids coming through and saying rugby is my game whereas traditionally it has been football. This tournament will definitely help in that respect.
"Somos una población de cuatro millones y medio, como en Nueva Zelanda, por lo que necesitamos que los niños se acerquen al rugby y digan que eligen el rugby"
“It is a big responsibility for us to host the tournament and there is a real understanding and expectation that we’ll have to do a really good job, not just for ourselves but for other smaller nations who have the desire to host these types of tournaments.
“The game is so popular here and it is still building.
“We had a massive growth spurt when we came back from the World Cup and I think this will be another occasion where people will get behind it and support it and post-World Rugby U20 Championship, I anticipate they’ll be another growth spurt.”
Georgia will face South Africa, Argentina and France in Pool C at the U20 Championship, which runs from 31 May-18 June. For more information on the tournament, click here