Georgia and Portugal evidence tectonic plates of global rugby are shifting | Sport

Forget England’s dramatic draw with the All Blacks or Ireland and France cementing their status at the top of World Rugby rankings over the weekend.

Instead raise a glass of Portuguese or Georgian wine in celebration of two historic results which are prompting renewed questions about the future structures of the international game in Europe and beyond.

Even viewed in microcosm the significance of Portugal’s last gasp penalty in Dubai which earned them the final place at next year’s men’s World Cup at the expense of the United States was considerable. So, too, was the manner of Georgia’s win over Wales, one last monumental scrum from the Lelos clinching a famous 13-12 victory in Cardiff. Put the two together and the tectonic plates of global rugby would appear to be shifting.

Which makes it a perfect week for representatives of all the major unions to be discussing the global calendar and, specifically, the finer detail of the nations league proposals which have been on the table for months.

Thursday will see a key meeting on the subject, with the clock starting to tick if the ‘new’ tournament — essentially a rationalization of the July and August windows — is to become a reality. The idea is straightforward enough, with the Six Nations sides joining with Australia, Argentina, Fiji, New Zealand, South Africa and Japan in a 12-team event to be played in non World Cup and Lions tour years, starting in 2026. The European teams would play three summer matches against three different opponents before meeting the remaining three southern nations at home in the autumn. A potential November ‘final’ between the two pool winners would then follow.

The devil, though, is very much in the detail. A key proposal, finding some highly-placed support behind the scenes, is for no relegation or promotion from the 12-team ‘elite’ before 2030. Ostensibly the reason is that the tournament needs time to bed in commercially and that potential promoted teams also need time to become properly competitive.

This makes nil sense if you hail from Georgia. If they can win in Wales, having also beaten Italy 28-19 in Tbilisi in July, are people really saying they are not good enough? Or, come to that, not worthy of admission to the Six Nations itself? As their coach Levan Maisashvili told the Daily Mail, when asked if his side of him were knocking on the Six Nations door: “I think we have knocked the door down now.”

Given Maisashvili was in a coma and close to death last year after contracting Covid-19 in South Africa, the Georgian story is a stirring one on many levels. This might not be the best moment in history to have a land border with Russia but, rugby wise, their progress is increasingly obvious.

The 20-year-old Davit Niniashvili of Lyon is among the most promising young players in Europe and the referee Nika Amashukeli is also deservedly rising up the officiating pecking order.

Davit Niniashvili celebrates Georgia's victory
Davit Niniashvili is one of the most promising young players in Europe. Photograph: Tom Maher/Inpho/Shutterstock

Yet instead of being encouraged to push on even further, Georgia’s first two games of 2023 will be against Germany and the Netherlands in the Rugby Europe championship, the rung below the Six Nations. Rather than building on their famous Wales result against similar caliber opposition, their ability to take that momentum into the World Cup will be inevitably compromised.

If that feels unfair, it is because it is. Imagine the following scenario, though. Georgia rock up at the World Cup in France and their powerful scrum upset a slow-starting Australia on the opening weekend in the Stade de France. given the Wallabies lost against Italy in Florence this month, the outcome can no longer be seen as totally inevitable. Suddenly the Lelos would be just a couple of wins over currently lower-ranked Fiji and Portugal away from reaching their final pool game in pole position. And their opponents in Nantes for that crunch fixture? Why, none other than their new friends, Wales.

In other words it is not impossible Georgia could march unbeaten into the last eight of the world’s premier tournament whilst still effectively being cast as a second-tier rugby nation for at least another seven years. Which seems, at best, illogical. Maisashvili, for one, is growing weary of repeating the same old arguments. “Every year we start with the Rugby Europe competition – there is a big difference. It’s a joke … rugby is not only 10 countries. We had eight players out with injury against Wales and a 19-year-old tighthead. For 40 minutes, Wales still did not score.” It is also clear that rugby’s traditional divides are shrinking fast.

Anyone who saw Portugal’s ultra skilful full-back Nuno Sousa Guedes against USA will be aware that talent is not just the preserve of more established unions. And how about the way Italy attacked against the Wallabies? Of all the awards dished out by World Rugby this weekend, the breakthrough player prize given to Ange Capuozzo was particularly deserved.

We have not even mentioned the proud World Cup qualifiers Chile and Uruguay or Spain or a potentially beefed up USA as they seek to be competitive at their own 2031 World Cup. When rugby’s leading officials meet this week, they need to prioritize the many, not the few.

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