I’ll be completely honest here, I know very little about Georgian rugby other than what I’ve seen in past Rugby World Cups; I did end up watching the Canada v Georgia match earlier in the week to gather some intelligence.
I was fairly impressed by their ambition and power; their fullback in particular, having a real eye-catching game (not to mention a memorable try, getting his fingertips to the ball just an inch before it wobbled over the dead-ball line). However, I never thought they would trouble Wales, regardless of selection. I read many comments in the build-up to this game about Wales showing a lack of respect to Georgia; well I heartily disagree! Saying this is a disrespectful stance is an insult to the Welsh youngsters who have battled into the international squad.
What would the Welsh coaching staff have to gain from selecting a side packed with seasoned veterans against Georgia in what is essentially a game with nothing in the balance? Were this a World Cup fixture, then yes, by all means, they should be selecting a strong side to ensure a victory. But if this isn’t an opportunity test young and fringe players on an international level, what is?
From the Georgian perspective, this too was a massive opportunity to show World Rugby that they have what it takes to compete with Europe’s best.
Now I never expected this to be a stroll through Sofia Gardens for Wales; far from it. I was expecting a tough, physical, bruising confrontation with the Georgian pack throwing their considerable weight about. But the first half was clearly dominated by Wales, albeit not on the scoreboard; the Welsh backs were dominant if not a little impatient and the ball was wisely kept well away from the hulking forwards and the Georgians. The visitors, bar one foray into Welsh territory, never really looked a threat and I was wholly expecting the floodgates to open at any time.
I was very excited to see the young Owen Watkin being partnered up with Scott Williams in midfield, and with Priestland looking in great form for Bath, it should’ve been a long and toilsome afternoon for the Georgian centres, Merab Sharikadze and Davit Kacharava.
However, the hype didn’t live up to expectation and it seemed to me that the backs, after just two early opportunities to score, were eager to cross the whitewash after just a phase or two. Unfortunately for the home team, the Georgians weren’t going to buckle so easily and small errors denied Wales any more than that one try in the first half. Williams appeared to be taking on a lot of responsibility, perhaps to take pressure off young Watkin, but it was a shift back to the old style of play where there didn’t seem to be an alternative to running hard into the midfield.
It feels as if Wales always end up being dragged into the game plan of their opposition instead of stamping their own authority on the game and playing to their strengths. After the half-time interval, I had expected Gatland to tell his troops to stay calm and run the visitors ragged from touch line to touch line, utilising their superior pace and fitness. However, it was the Georgians who seemed to rally in the second half, building in confidence and belief and dragging Wales into an arm wrestle, where they were by far the stronger team. A relatively lightweight Welsh pack struggled for the most part against the hefty Georgian forwards, and a misfiring lineout meant Wales had no platform to set up an attack.
Amos and Cuthbert, after a dazzling start, were relatively quiet throughout the remainder of the game, highlighting the difficulty Wales had in getting the ball out to the wide channels.
The last moments of the game were reminiscent of the 2017 RBS Six Nations match between France and Wales, where 20 minutes of additional time was played as the two packs knuckled down for scrum after scrum. Eventually, following a controversial substitute by France that brought their scrum specialist back onto the field, the hosts went over for a try that won them the game. This time around, it was Georgia pushing Wales to the limits but eventually, the home team managed to turn the tables on Georgia and earn a reprieve.
It wasn’t long until the visitors had managed to fight their way back into Wales’ 22m and with Tomas Francis being shown a yellow card for blatantly hitting a ruck from the side, it seemed another scrum battle was inevitable. There was much confusion on the pitch as the match official, Mathieu Raynal, deliberated with his assistants before announcing that with Francis off the field and the replacement props having allegedly been taken off due to injury, the scrum would now have to be uncontested. The Georgians, wisely, opted for a driving lineout instead which resulted in a series of furious clashes along the Welsh 5m line. Eventually, Navidi secured a penalty and Priestland was able to kick the ball dead.
Despite the near miss and what was, in all honesty, a fairly boring game for spectators, there were some positives to take from the encounter. Adam Beard and Cory Hill are developing into lively second rows, a position I thought Wales would struggle with as Alun Wyn Jones and Luke Charteris near the end of their careers. With Jake Ball still only 26, there’s a good balance of power and dynamism in the second row now that will only grow as the seasons accumulate.
Josh Navidi is proving to be a very handy openside, making a real nuisance of himself for the opposition; though I do feel that Wales have missed out on a real game changer in James Davies, who has single-handedly turned the tide of battle for the Scarlets and is ridiculously versatile. In the backs, Aled Davies looked comfortable off the bench, offering something a little different to Webb and Gareth Davies. Owen Watkin, although relatively quiet in attack, was rock solid in defence and I believe has a bright future ahead of him. Amos is growing into his role on the wing and is becoming a threatening finisher; with Steff Evans on the other wing, Wales have secured a pair of potential superstars in the back three.
The other silver lining too, is the fact that Georgia has made a great case as to why they should perhaps be considered to join the prestigious Six Nations Championship. Considering in the last three encounters between Wales and Italy, the scorelines have been in favour of the Welsh: 20-61, 67-14 and 7-33, this is an excellent reminder that the Georgians can punch well above their (figurative) weight.
Winger Miriani Modebadze was a thorn in Wales’ side and showed some great touches out on the wing while tighthead Levan Chilachava popped up every two or three phases it seemed with a powerful carry or an important tackle. Not only were individual performances commendable, the team’s tactic as a whole, mainly in the second half, was executed to great effect that nullified the Welsh attack. Spreading their defensive line across the width of the field and carefully selecting which rucks to attack to maximize the chances of a turnover.
However, there’s not much time to dwell on the mistakes and missed opportunities against Georgia… It’s the All Blacks up next, and they’ll certainly have a point to prove following a nail-biting finish against Scotland up in Murrayfield.