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Monday, March 30, 2009

Georgian - Russian Rugby Diary: Pt. 2 The Match

The Georgian national team had been psyching themselves up for days. Two days earlier, they received an intense pep talk on how important the match was for the country by a veteran Georgian rugby star. On the flight to Mariupol, players passed around a laptop with pictures of Georgian casualties from the August war. This was not going to be an ordinary rugby match.

“There's a lot of pressure on their shoulders to win for the nation,” their Australian coach Tim Lane had said.

Athletically, a win meant moving up a notch in the international standings as well as step towards securing the European Nations Cup again, but for the nation, a win meant defeating their enemy and the rugby pitch was an extension of the battlefield. These guys carried that burden into the locker room and the nervous hum permeated out of every pore, a distinct buzz that echoed off the cement walls and floor.

Team captain Irakli Abusseridze brought an icon of the Virgin and set it in the corner of the locker room. One player lit a candle and knelt before it. Others would follow. Irakli Machkhaneli paced back and forth in his zone, listening to Pavarotti on his iPod. Others were silently taping limbs and digits and in one case, an ear. “Discipline, communication, defense!” coach Lane firmly stressed.

Tension has always been high whenever Russia and Georgia appeared together on the playing field. The previous year, two brawls broke out at the beginning of the match. But when the two teams hit the field this time, blood lust seemed restrained, despite the highly combative contest. Yes, there were flare-ups and dirty play, but the aim was to score and defend, not to kill.

The Russians took an early 6 point lead with two goals, but Georgia dominated the pitch and soon countered with two 6 point tries. At half-time Georgia had a firm lead of 19-6.

The Georgians dominated the stands too. Many Georgian ex-pats were reportedly bused in from Kharvov, Donetsk and other distant regions. An enormous Georgian flag was unfurled in the stands and throughout the match fans chanted “Lelo, Lelo, Sakartvelo!” (try, try, Georgia). Russia's fans, meanwhile, put up quite a banter themselves and yet despite the proximity of Georgian fans and Ukrainian vodka, confrontations were playful and light-hearted.

The Georgians were playing into the wind the second half and lost their comfortable lead well into the period. Some concentrated defensive play, meters from the goal, prevented Russia from scoring on several occasions, but wasn't enough to prevent them from coming within 3 points of the lead with only several minutes left in the game. Georgian fans were stunned. Kowalski and I were nervous. A loss would definitely mean no filming, as no Georgian would allow a camera to be pointed in their face. The airplane would be so heavy with the agony of defeat it would undoubtedly crash if it got off the ground at all. And the option of missing the flight and staying in Mariupol was as equally lethal.

With seconds left in the game, Georgia scored a try, securing their victory. Georgian fans went wild as Russia's sulked off the stands. A few Russian players congratulated their adversaries as they all hobbled off the pitch. The locker room was a mix of jubilation and exhaustion as players iced head and knee injuries, congratulated themselves or sat alone to confront their emotions.

Gia Nizaradze, president of the Georgian Rugby Union was beaming. “This is the best the Russian team has been in fifteen years, which makes it a better win for us,” he said.

Back at Hotel Druzba, Georgians were feasting the victory celebration. We all had about an hour to make it to the airport. When we got there, you could divide the passengers into those who felt no pain with those who did. Players sat like sacks of potatoes, while fans passed bottles of spirits and shouted “Sakartvelos gaumarjos!” (Georgia's victory!) and pounded a drum one gentleman had brought. It was bordering mayhem as one drunk tried to grab the hat off a Ukrainian customs officer while another took his shirt off and tried to climb the railing over the rubber stamp box. It seemed, though, that the Ukrainians wanted us to stay despite the noise, as it was taking quite some time to get a bus to fetch us to our plane.

A barrel of monkeys is a plane of happy Georgians. Airline rules were bent as men pulled out plastic pop bottles full of chacha (grape vodka) and opened boxes of wine. Men crawled over seats and condiment carts to the tune of Sakartvelos gaumarjos shouted through the plane's emergency megaphone. One and a half hours of this.

I was starved and had never, ever, looked so forward to airplane food before. Salisbury steak? Pasta? Chicken ala airplane? No, on this special charter, which had also stayed overnight in Mariupol, the food I was served and devoured was pork tongue and chicken cold cuts. Kowalski was jealous; his ambiguous portion of meat had turned green.

The player with the laptop was no longer looking at war casualty photos, but recently uploaded pics of the game. Another laptop was playing live rugby highlights from previous matches. Ilia Zedguinidze was standing in the aisle stretching his long legs. Like the other 18 of the 25 players, Ilia plays for a professional French rugby team and is one of the several 2nd division champs on the plane. If your stereotype rugby player is a thick skulled meat head, Ilia will break your mold. He speaks 5 languages and studies international law in France.

“But after school I think I'll get into business,” The 2 meter tall star said in English. “I don't want to be a bookworm.”

Only one player on the national team plays for a Georgian club. Georgia is to European rugby what Latin America is to American baseball – a farm for up and coming players. Short on sponsors, no stadium, let alone practice field of their own, the Georgian game is pure passion. Nobody plays for money because there isn't any. As for the national team, Coach Lane said they lost 600-800,000 lari this year from sponsors pulling out.

As the plane approached Tbilisi the bruised, scratched and dog-tired players began to gather their second wind while liquored up fans were losing their first. Waiting for the team at the gate were a couple hundred proud Georgians, waving flags and shouting Sakartvelos gaumarjos! For those of us who had been in Mariupol, the victory had sunken in, but back in Georgia the party had just begun.