France-Georgia: banned by Stalin then resuscitated by the French before becoming a national sport, the contrasting history of Georgian rugby

If we wanted to force the lines, we could say that it is a geographical anomaly. Far from the southern hemisphere and its kids raised for rugby, or from the United Kingdom with its universities breeding grounds for talent, Georgia, a proud nation of 3.7 million inhabitants in the Caucasus, is nevertheless a country that counts in rugby. Sunday November 14, the Lelos (name given to the national team) will challenge the XV of France, in Bordeaux.

Independent since 1991, after being part of the USSR, the country still has its own alphabet, its own language and its national rugby team.

To define the founding act of rugby in Georgia, the versions differ. The part played by Lelo Burti, a sort of soule, himself the ancestor of rugby, practiced in the Caucasus, is sometimes praised, sometimes disowned. “There are many legends but above all there is the reality, poses Yvonnick Le Lay, associate researcher at the ESO laboratory at the University of Rennes 2, and author of research on the origins of Georgian rugby. The most common legend is to say that there is a link between a traditional sport, lelo, and rugby. “

“The traditional national sports in Georgia are Georgian wrestling and ‘Lelo Burti’ which is precisely the source of judo and rugby”, answers Ioseb Tkemaladze, the president of the Georgian Rugby Federation. In addition to these distant first rebounds, rugby had to wait a long time for its meeting with Georgia. A time in the grip of the Soviet Union, Georgia had to deal with the disenchantment between the government and rugby. In 1888, the practice of this sport, considered too violent, was banned by Tsar Alexander III.

A ban which does not calm the ardor of travelers … in vain. “From the 1920s, traders of Western origin, especially English, sought to establish rugby, develops Yvonnick Le Lay. It failed because the Proletkul’tist movement did everything to prevent Western sports in the USSR. “

In 1947, Stalin put a layer back by banning the practice of rugby again, judged “too bourgeois ” and sonot worthy enough of the values ​​of communism “ according to him.

It is finally in 1959 that a Frenchman of Armenian origin will definitively impose the sport. “Georgian rugby owes a lot to Jacques Haspékian, explains Yvonnick Le Lay. He had played in Lyon and wanted to return to Armenia to develop the practice of rugby. He opposed an outright refusal by Soviet government leaders in Armenia, who told him that rugby could not be played in a state that values ​​the proletariat. He then tried in Georgia and got the support of the football club Dinamo Tbilisi. It was there that he managed to create a team of young students from the Georgia Polytechnic “, details the researcher.

“Intellectual Georgian youth fell in love with the oval balloon and mastered it, continues the president Tkemaladze. After graduating from graduate school, manyp of them have become very important people in their profession, at the national level. With a great mental capacity, they paved the way for the development of rugby despite the very bad conditions and the total neglect of the government of the time. “

Ioseb Tkemaladze, center, is the President of the Georgian Rugby Federation.  Since his election last March, he has plans to build 100 stadiums across the country, with state support.  (Irakli Tkemaladze)

In 1964, the USSR finally accepted the creation of a properly Georgian team. A first step has been taken. But it was not until 1989 that the national team played its first match. Against Zimbabwe, the Lelos won 16-3. In the following years, the war which preceded the break-up of the Soviet bloc removed rugby from national concerns. Until another Frenchman gets involved.

“When I arrived, shortly after the war, I met men who were not getting enough food, the equipment was obsolete, there was hardly any electricity… The country was in a near state. from Ohio, remembers Claude Saurel, who arrived in Georgia in 1996. They suffered greatly from the war. “

After experiences with the selections of Morocco and Tunisia, the Biterrois is invited to do an audit on the situation of Georgian rugby. He will stay there for eight years, and will write the first beautiful pages of local rugby. “I had to start from scratch. The first day I took out the blackboard and did a first lesson in rugby.” Over time, and with the support of a federation and motivated politicians, he developed rugby to the point of qualifying the national team for its first World Cup in 2003. For him, fed on rugby from the south of France , the transplant could only take.

Claude Saurel, then general manager of Georgia, attends training for his team during the 2003 World Cup. (DAVID HANCOCK / AFP)

“It is a country where people really like wrestling, judo, boxing or combat sports in general. [les huit médailles obtenues aux derniers Jeux Olympiques l’ont toutes été en lutte et en judo]. Many neighboring countries have tried to invade them, but the Georgians have always subdued them. It’s in their mentality “, analyzes the one who now has Georgian nationality.

Of Georgian origin through his father, Dimitri Yachvili abounds: “They are resistant at all times, and not only in sport: in political conflicts and their geographical position in particular, they resist”. But according to Claude Saurel, not everything can be explained by these natural filiations. He evokes another cultural aspect: “Georgia is a country of cheese, it is a country of wine, it is a country of song. All these values ​​so important in the culture of rugby. On these points, they are like us.”

A reflection that can lead to a smile, but that the President of the Federation, Ioseb Tkemaladze, takes it very seriously, while the Georgian old-fashioned method of winemaking has been recognized since 2013 as a UNESCO intangible cultural heritage. “A few years ago, I asked Claude Saurel why, in his opinion, our team was successful on a global level. Claude had replied: ‘Look closely, rugby is playing well in countries where vines thrive and we make good wine’. It is for that, rugby is also a Georgian game “ conclut Tkemaladze.

Sunday, it is precisely in Bordeaux that the national teams will meet. A wine lover as much as a rugby enthusiast, Claude Saurel will be in the stands to savor part of his work.

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