MY mother owns a coffee cup with the logo: “Lord, if you can’t make me skinny, at least make all my friends fat!” It is much the same sentiment echoed a little more eloquently by the American man of letters Gore Vidal: “Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little.”
In amongst the humour is a grain or two of truth in both. Throughout much of our world, values are relative, the one-eyed man is king in the land of the blind, and nowhere is this more true than elite sport.
Which brings us to Saturday’s third warm up Test between Georgia and Scotland who, it is worth pointing out, are the first Tier One nation to play an international match in Georgia and deserve some credit for it.
The Georgians are rugby’s Cyclops in a world inhabited almost exclusively by Mr McGoos. They have won their last three Tests by a combined total of 120-15, scoring 19 tries along the way and conceding none.
On paper, it seems like Saturday will prove hard yakka for Scotland until you look at the opposition that Georgia crushed: Belgium, Germany and Russia. Georgia are in a different league to Scotland, literally, they compete in the Rugby Europe Championship (the reserve Six Nations).
Last week was a miserable one for Tier Two teams, including Georgia, and for World Rugby who have thrown millions of pounds at various countries in a forlorn attempt to make them competitive.
Russia should have been playing Georgia last weekend but, for political considerations, they cried off. Instead Russia lined up a match against England Championship side Jersey Reds and lost 35-22. It was played in Moscow.
Over the water, Leinster’s dirt trackers beat Canada, also bound for Japan, with something to spare; while Georgia scraped past the Southern Kings thanks to a try in the final ten minutes, finishing 24-20 winners after trailing for much of the match.
That is the same Southern Kings, in case you doubted it, that managed two PRO14 wins throughout last season. And one draw. Alongside their 18 defeats.
There is talk of Georgia quitting the Rugby Europe Championship, which they have won in eight of the last nine years, and joining the Six Nations but they don’t look remotely ready to make the step up. Italy can’t beg a win in the tournament but still beat the Lelos 28-17 last November. Georgia are rugby’s “inbetweeners”: too good for the rest, nowhere near the best.
Georgia’s Kiwi coach Milton Haig has made changes for Saturday’s match, ten in all from the team that squeaked past the Kings, including six in the pack with an entire new front-five including Montpellier prop Mikheil Nariashvili, who leads the side.
Many of the Georgian forwards ply their trade in France but many of the Lelos’ backs play in Eastern Europe, including veteran centre Davit Katcherava who turns out for Russian side Enisei STM and is on course to equal the Georgian record number of caps at 115 come Saturday.
The point is that Georgia boasts some decent forwards and a very good scrummy in Vasil Lobzhanidze (Brive), who scored two tries the last time these teams met back in 2016, but if Scotland play their full-court game to anywhere near their potential they will win this one by a couple of lengths.
Scotland’s to lose
To counter the obvious scrum threat (Georgia’s Under-20s milked a penalty at every scrum against Scotland in Argentina this summer), Gregor Townsend has picked what looks like his strongest front-row. Ben Toolis and Grant Gilchrist offer second-row ballast, although the former could do with a good performance in the loose to nail down his seat.
It would have been good to see Magnus Bradbury get a run but that troublesome rib injury is proving horribly hard to shake. The Edinburgh eight is the only genuine ball-carrier in the Scotland back-row since Josh Strauss hasn’t done nearly enough to warrant a place in the final 31 and Blade Thomson’s head knock last weekend is obviously a major worry to someone who sat out six months of last season with concussion.
Bradbury’s robust, route-one approach with ball in hand does not necessarily chime with Townsend’s preference for ball playing athletes but the Scotland coach desperately needs options, especially against Japan. No one wins the World Cup playing just one way and, when their fast game fails them, Scotland need a ball carrier who can get them on the front foot from a standing start.
In the backs, the Scotland midfield has an interesting, if untried, look to it. It doesn’t take a huge stretch of the imagination to see Finn Russell, Sam Johnson and Rory Hutchinson starting against Ireland in that World Cup opener if they impress on Saturday. Full-back Blair Kinghorn needs a more polished performance on Saturday but the same could be said for the entire team.
Scotland have lost in Nice and won at Murrayfield without playing well, never mind looking like the unstoppable force of nature they were in the second half of the Calcutta Cup. The World Cup is getting uncomfortably close and the Scots need a slick performance with a low error count to boost both morale and momentum going into next week’s squad announcement.
They should get it on Saturday against a side that, for all the background noise, remain five places below Scotland in World Rugby’s rankings. Rugby minnows, relatively speaking.
Scotland : Blair Kinghorn (Edinburgh); Darcy Graham (Edinburgh), Rory Hutchinson (Northampton Saints), Sam Johnson (Glasgow Warriors), Sean Maitland (Saracens); Finn Russell (Racing 92), Greig Laidlaw VICE CAPTAIN (Clermont Auvergne); Allan Dell (London Irish), Stuart McInally CAPTAIN (Edinburgh), Willem Nel (Edinburgh), Ben Toolis (Edinburgh), Grant Gilchrist (Edinburgh), John Barclay VICE CAPTAIN (Edinburgh), Hamish Watson (Edinburgh), Matt Fagerson (Glasgow Warriors). Subs: Grant Stewart (Glasgow Warriors), Jamie Bhatti (Edinburgh), Zander Fagerson (Glasgow Warriors), Scott Cummings (Glasgow Warriors), Josh Strauss (Blue Bulls), Ali Price (Glasgow Warriors), Adam Hastings (Glasgow Warriors), Huw Jones (Glasgow Warriors).
Georgia: Soso Matiashvili; Miriani Modebadze, Zurab Dzneladze, Davit Kacharava, Alexander Todua; Tedo Abzhandadze, Vasil Lobzhanidze; Mikheil Nariashvili, Shalva Mamukashvili, Beka Gigashvili, Shalva Sutiashvili, Konstantin Mikautadze, Otar Giorgadze, Beka Saghinadze, Beka Gorgadze. Subs: Giorgi Chkoidze, Karlen Asieshvili, Levan Chilachava, Giorgi Nemsadze, Lasha Lomidze, Gela Aprasidze, Lasha Khmaladze, Tamaz Mchedlidze.
- Match played to be played at the Dinamo Arena in Tbilisi, 8pm local time, 5pm BST, live on Premier Sports
Test Matches Between Scotland and Georgia –
14th September 2011 – Scotland 15-6 Georgia (Invercargill)
Andy Robinson’s side was hopelessly undercooked for their first World Cup match which went the 80 without either side scoring a try. A wake up call for the Scots.
26th November 2016 Scotland 43-16 Georgia (Kilmarnock)
Vern Cotter’s team bossed the match from start to finish … well … almost … because Georgia scored first. Ali Price came off the bench on debut to impress as the Scots run in six tries to two.