It was 2003 and I was working for the Rugby World Cup’s internal news-wire service. Based in Perth, Australia, covering the Springboks’ pool, the Georgian national team were one of the teams with whom I spent a bit of time. What I found was a bunch of athletes whose dreams of representing their country in water polo, wrestling and weight lifting were crushed by the civil war that broke out in 1992.
Without gyms and swimming pools to further their Olympic ambitions, they turned to rugby and were about to play on the biggest world stage in their chosen sport. Here were the best 30 from the 400 senior rugby players to be found in Georgia. For these 30 guys, their World Cup was about beating Russia to qualify for the tournament.
Captain Levan Tsabadze lauded their victory: “This is the greatest moment in the history of Georgian rugby. I have waited 10 long years for this moment. For us, beating Russia is like playing in the World Cup final. This was our World Cup final. No matter how well we do in Australia, we have already achieved our objectives.”
But the best part was the way a section of Perth’s population got together to support this team, donning their jerseys and waving their flag. For me that was what the World Cup was all about — the dreams of athletes to excel at the highest level.
So, while commentators engage in a high-brow discussion about how many teams should be in the tournament, let us remember the players for whom running on to the field in a World Cup game is the pinnacle of success. In the 2007 Rugby World Cup we have already seen the spirit of the underdog: in the way Argentina ground out a win against the host nation in the opening game, in the way Canada went into the half-time break with a lead over Wales, and in the way the Namibians came back in the second half to outplay the Irish.
So who are the new entrants this year, the teams that some would accuse of making up the numbers? Let us start with Portugal, the first fully amateur team to qualify for the World Cup. Entering through the Repercharge, or what I like to call Last Chance Saloon, the Portuguese are going to find it tough going in a group that includes New Zealand, but they will want to make an impression on Romania, Scotland and Italy.
On paper, Namibia are also expected to be whipping boys, but after their 142-0 thrashing by the Australians in 2003, that term is relative. If they can build on their performance against Ireland last weekend, they might raise a few eyebrows, with their biggest chance at victory against the Georgians. But Georgia, back for a second stab at the World Cup, will be determined to leave victorious, so this could be one of the games of the tournament.
It all boils down to one thing, expressed perfectly by Japanese coach John Kirwan in the pre-match interview before his side ran out against Australia last weekend. Asked what he hoped to take away from the game, Kirwan’s answer was short and sweet: “Respect.” Granted, Japan did go on to lose 91-3 against the Wallabies, but the message of respect is still there. That is all any of them want. They are playing on the greatest stage that exists in their chosen sport. Long live the underdog.
This piece was written for last week’s Mail & Guardian, so some of the games mentioned may have taken place already. Georgia showed their strength in going down 14-10 to Ireland, while Namibia and Portugal were hammered by France and New Zealand. respectively.