Patriotism and bulging biceps! Inside Georgia's World Cup camp

EXCLUSIVE: Inside Georgia’s World Cup camp: With patriotic fervour and bulging biceps, the Lelos stars are ready to raise a few eyebrows in France as they eye up a seat at the Six Nations table

  • Mail Sport went behind the scenes with Georgia ahead of the Rugby World Cup
  • Levan Maisashvili’s players are desperate to earn a seat at the game’s top table
  • Unlike most tier-one nations, Georgia refreshingly have an open-door policy
  • Latest Rugby World Cup 2023 news, including fixtures, live scores and results

As he sees team-mate Luka Japaridze pushing a giant weighted sled already totalling 250 kilos across the gym floor, Beka Saghinadze impulsively decides to jump on top to add a few extra pounds. The aim is to make his colleague’s physical challenge even harder still.

Saghinadze’s new position and some added extra metal plates takes the new weight of the sled past the mammoth 400kg mark. That equates to about six average humans. Urging prop Japaridze to drive his legs faster and push even harder while bizarrely wielding a long, black baton, a crazed look crosses Saghinadze’s face.

Welcome to the mad, unique world of Georgian rugby, where beards and tattoos are commonplace and patriotic fervour and bulging biceps are an undoubted requirement.

‘My best sled push is 450kg,’ says Montpellier’s Japaridze in broken English, the sweat pouring from his brow. ‘For bench press it’s three reps of 170kg.’

Japaridze is not even best in class. That record goes to another front-row forward in Exeter’s Nika Abuladze.

Mail Sport went behind the scenes at Georgia’s training camp ahead of the Rugby World Cup

France 2023 is Georgia’s chance to show world rugby that they belong at the game’s top table

Georgia’s strength and conditioning coach Ben Pollard (not pictured) insists: ‘We’re in a good place physically for the World Cup. The players have been hitting personal bests in the gym’

‘Nika is our strongest by a decent margin,’ says Georgia’s strength and conditioning coach Ben Pollard, who is on loan from World Rugby and previously worked under Eddie Jones with England. 

‘He can squat 260kg and bench 180kg. He’s a bit of a freak, a monster. He’s got arms the size of your legs. We’re in a good place physically for the World Cup.

‘The players have been hitting personal bests in the gym.’

This is a big World Cup for Georgia. Ahead of the tournament, Mail Sport was given a day of behind-the-scenes access inside the Lelos camp. Refreshingly – and unlike most tier-one nations – Georgia have an open-door policy. They are welcoming. Nothing is off limits. They want to tell their story.

Georgia is an ambitious rugby nation, desperate for a seat at the game’s top table. France 2023 is their chance to show that is exactly where they should be.

‘Georgia are going to get to the Six Nations at some point. You won’t be able to stop it,’ says England’s 2003 World Cup winner Joe Worsley, now in charge of the Eastern European side’s defence. ‘They’ve committed to an investment for 20 years to get there.

‘Rugby is growing in Georgia and it’s only going to get better. They need to find a formula where there’s a possibility for them to play in the Six Nations.’

If hospitality was the only requirement for Six Nations participation, then Georgia would have been welcomed long ago. Levan Maisashvili’s players welcomed Mail Sport with open arms.

This is a big World Cup for Georgia, who pride themselves on being an ambitious rugby nation

The team boast an impressive pack and made sure to practise their exact roles on lineout duty

Unlike most tier-one nations, Georgia refreshingly have an open-door policy with the media

The dance music was already pumping at 7.30am as captain Merab Sharikadze loaded up a giant plate of scrambled eggs. Georgia’s players make a point of greeting each and every one of their team-mates as they come down each morning. There is the occasional kiss on the hand.

Front-row forwards Japaridze and Abuladze are among the bigger units who strip down to their pants in the team room as they weigh in for the day. There are sighs of relief when they are told they remain within the parameters set by the fitness team. Others, mainly the backs, celebrate the gaining of a few pounds here or there by pumping the air.

The Georgians are so big even the bus driver notices.

Bobby Thomson is the man responsible for transporting Maisashvili’s hulking squad to training.

‘If I have 15 average people on my bus, we’ve got about a tonne of weight,’ Thomson says.

‘These guys are definitely above average. You can tell the difference when your bus is carrying a rugby team and you definitely can with these guys! You can feel it in the corners.’

After breakfast and before training is a team meeting. Worsley and attack coach Cory Brown deliver their messages in English, with a selection of Georgia’s players translating as they speak.

After an extremely physical session of heavy lifting, the Georgia stars go and get strapped up

Giorgi Chkoidze, who has 30 international caps for Georgia, takes a short break on his phone

Front-row forward Nika Abuladze (centre) is a ‘freak’ who can squat 260kg and bench 180kg

Interpretation is not needed at certain points.

‘You’ve got to f***ing hit him,’ Brown says, pointing at the screen.

Georgia’s bid for the top is funded by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili. Rugby is the nation’s most popular sport and its popularity originates from the historic folk game Lelo.

It is where the nickname for Georgia’s rugby side comes from. Unlike some tier-two nations, the Lelos don’t lack for support. State-of-the-art gym equipment monitors the speed at which the Georgians lift their weights. A drone flies overhead as the players train.

Maisashvili has a 21-strong backroom team, made up of mostly Georgians but supplemented by the likes of Worsley and Paul Tito and World Rugby support from Pollard and Calvin Morris.

Pollard and Morris are employed by the game’s governing body but work with developing nations to help them bridge the divide to rugby’s traditional heavyweights.

That gap is certainly closing.

Georgia beat both Italy and Wales in 2022 and are hoping for more shock results in France. They open up their World Cup campaign against Jones’ Australia in Paris on Saturday.

‘In Georgia we can play good rugby. We can beat big teams,’ Maisashvili says. ‘We’ve had two great victories but we still have problems. Look at the structure World Rugby wants to introduce from 2026. We have to show people we deserve our chance to play against the best teams every time.

Beka Gigashvili (centre) is pictured smiling among his team-mates on the Georgia team bus

Expect a few crunching tackles from Georgia this tournament as they look to make a statement

The dance music was already pumping at 7.30am as the team loaded up on scrambled eggs

‘Of course, I understand the point of view of the Six Nations. They have a commercial project too. But will they say it’s a good commercial project if we keep beating their teams?’

Herein lies the crux of the matter.

The planned implementation of a Nations Championship from 2026 does not involve Georgia and will undoubtedly limit their progression. Their already slim opportunities to play against the best on the planet will soon become even fewer. Maisashvili’s just demands are falling on deaf ears.

Georgia won’t go away. Entry into the Six Nations at Under-20 level is seen as a possible first step and in June, their junior side beat England in a seismic result in Tbilisi.

Georgia’s main domestic team Black Lion – which forms the spine of their national XV – will play in the European Challenge Cup for the first time this season.

The country’s rugby is upwardly mobile.

‘We are a small country but we have very nice cuisine,’ says star Georgia wing and the nation’s record try scorer Aka Tabutsadze, eating a plate of chicken, broccoli and beetroot to fuel his afternoon weights session. Georgia’s players eat around 4,000 calories a day in a match week.

That figure is closer to 5,000 for the likes of Japaridze and Abuladze. MailSport shared lunch with Georgia’s players, Tabutsadze making a noticeable effort to sit next to the journalist infiltrating the camp when it would have been all too easy for him to turn the other way.

‘We are fighting for our country when we put the jersey on,’ says Tabutsadze, topping up Mail Sport’s water. ‘It’s like we have a superhero power!’

In star backs Davit Niniashvili and Tabutsadze, Georgia have pace as well as power. But to join the Lelos in the gym is to witness sheer brute strength at its most impressive.

Former England World Cup winner Joe Worsley insists Georgia will soon be in the Six Nations

Worsley, who is a current coach for Georgia, said: ‘They have a culture of fighting together to repel people who are trying to invade their country which makes them a perfect rugby nation’

‘They love lifting heavy,’ strength and conditioning coach Morris says of Georgia. ‘The players watch weight lifting and body building videos on the bus. It’s a big cultural thing in Georgia.’

Stroking his perfect moustache, which sits below a nose which has clearly been broken on several occasions, forward Mikheil Gachechiladze looks every inch the Georgian rugby player.

‘To be part of the national team means everything for us,’ says Maisashvili, who was given a one per cent chance of survival after contracting Covid and falling into a coma in 2021.

Maisashvili rose from the dead in South Africa. He is a man used to miracles. Now Maisashvili is planning another one in France.

Portugal, Fiji and Wales are the other opponents for Georgia in Pool C.

‘Everyone is ready to sacrifice themselves. We are a small country. Our history is full of many different battles,’ says Maisashvili. ‘It’s in our DNA to fight – 20 per cent of our country is still occupied by Russia. When we play against big teams, it’s a chance to give our country and supporters the biggest happiness. Each player feels that responsibility.

‘This World Cup is a chance for gratitude for me. God has given me a second chance at life. I had one when I was born and a second when I was sick.

‘I thank God he decided I had to stay alive.’

Giorgi Kveseladze (centre), who left Gloucester to join Black Lion in 2023, relaxes on his phone

Three quarters of Georgia’s World Cup squad for France should be available at Australia 2027

Georgia want to prove a point in 2023 but three quarters of their squad for France should make Australia in 2027. Niniashvili and others should still be around in 2031. Don’t expect Georgia to disappear. They will start this World Cup ranked 11th on the planet, above Italy and Japan.

‘Georgia’s culture has been going for thousands of years despite many, many invasions, many empires, and people trying to take over,’ Worsley says.

‘They’ve always kept the language and their culture through retreating to the mountains or fighting back. They are proud of their history – it really drags them together.

‘They have a culture of fighting together to repel people who are trying to invade their country which makes them a perfect rugby nation.’

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