What to Watch at the 2019 Rugby World Cup

The Rugby World Cup is coming up, and I’m here to convince you to brave the brutal 13-hour time difference with Japan for a reason you might not expect: the Georgian national rugby team.

The Georgians’ rugby jerseys are emblazoned with a simple vine down the back. That vine comes from a tradition in which warriors of the Black Sea nation strapped vines to their backs before battle, so if they were to perish, their bodies would nourish the vine as it decomposed.

This acceptance of the brutality of human existence defines the Georgian approach to rugby. They play with a warrior’s mindset. They let no inch go unearned and ram into every tackle with blood in their eyes. Watching the Georgians play rugby seems as if it might not be unlike their warrior past. Men like star Viktor Kolelishvili don’t come out of thin air. He is a hulking forward who looks like the type to solve his problems by punching them in the face. He comes from a tradition of playing lelo burti, the traditional Georgian sport, where this is the norm.

Lelo is a game designed to prevent violent conflict between towns, but it barely does its job. There is a ball, a field and two teams, but largely no other rules. Hitting people with rocks, playing with 1,000 people on your team and punching someone in the face are all fair game. Lelo, with its medieval roots, is now played only once a year.

Most of the rules are a little sanitized, but still, two people died in the chaos when they played last spring.

Rugby became the most popular sport in the nation of Georgia after an occupying Russian and a French doctor realized that lelo burti resembled rugby without the kicking and violence, so they introduced the nation to the sport. You can draw a parallel between Georgians playing rugby and Iroquois playing lacrosse – the sport might be a little different from how their ancestors played, but it’s in their blood. Whereas lacrosse stars like Tehoka Nanticoke play with serenity and grace afforded to them by their experience in a lacrosse-crazy culture, the Georgians seem to have developed a similar affinity for the sport of rugby.

After World Rugby reorganized the Georgian rugby team’s place in the World Cup in 2003 to make it less lopsided, Georgian rugby exploded in popularity. The skill of their top team consequently improved greatly. By 2007, Lelos, as the team is nicknamed, were ready to shock the world at the next World Cup.

“With all respect to the great teams, we are here not to enjoy rugby, but fight on the pitch,” said Mamuka Gorgodze before a fateful group stage match against Ireland. After a Georgian score was controversially revoked, the Lelos lost 14-10. To come within moments of unseating such a phenomenal side – Ireland was ranked second in the world at the time – was the spark which ignited the fire for Georgian rugby. Imagine if Duke was almost beaten by the Amherst men’s basketball team.

Georgia is now rolling towards the 2019 World Cup with an arsenal of assets. They have a player nicknamed “The Nightmare,” arguably the world’s best scrum, and a seemingly-endless roster from which they select their starting lineup. Most importantly, due to the rise of the sport in the nation, they have Vasil Lobzhanidze, who is as useful to the Georgian side as his last name would be in a game of Scrabble. Winning rugby games requires someone to tell the players where to go, and Lobzhanidze has played rugby – not just lelo – since birth, and consequently has that second-nature sense for the game you usually only see in New Zealanders.

Having a game manager might create a fantastic run for one of the greatest dark horse teams of all time. If anything, they’re worth watching for the sheer passion of a tiny nation attempting to impose their will on the giants of the sport. All the strength of entrenched powerhouses in rugby are stacked against them, but perhaps the forces of history will guide them to victory.

So, when you inevitably are hit with a case of mid-semester insomnia, too fried to keep working on your paper but too hopped up on caffeine to sleep, think of the Rugby World Cup. Underdog stories mean so much to the world of sports – they are truly one of the images which even the uninvested viewer can latch on to. Georgian rugby, forged in a brutal furnace, should tempt you into flipping on NBC Sports and watching a sport you’ll never watch again at 3 a.m.