WHILE THE DEBATE around whether or not Georgia should be given a shot at the Six Nations or allowed to enter a team into the Pro12 has raged on, the Lelos have been impressively going about business as usual in the Rugby Europe Championship.
This is the first rest weekend of the competition – also known as the Six Nations B – and Georgia are already commandingly out in front after bonus-point wins over Belgium and Germany, with a total of 12 tries scored and zero conceded in the opening two rounds.
Georgia during their clash with Scotland last November. Source: PA Wire/PA Images
Georgia have won this competition six years in a row now, and their dominance is beyond question. Simply put, they are too good for this level.
This season, head coach Milton Haig has brought a large group of fresh faces into the set-up, using the Rugby Europe Championship to increase the depth of his squad, particularly in the pack.
Off the pitch, there have been new faces too, including two Irishmen in the shape of John Farrell and Ged McNamara.
Working as a sports scientist and strength and conditioning coach, respectively, the Irish duo are loving being part of the Lelos‘ constant drive to be considered among the top rugby nations in the world.
Based in Tbilisi since last July, McNamara and Farrell are already hopeful of extending their stays beyond the initial year-long contracts they agreed.
“People might not have a lot, but they’ll give you everything,” says McNamara when explaining how hospitable the Georgian people have been. “It’s a bit like Ireland 20 years ago.”
S&C specialist McNamara is a Shannon man and, like Farrell, he found a posting for the internship role online, although there was no initial specification about which country it was for, only saying that it was a Tier Two rugby nation.
An application and interview later, McNamara learned that the role was with Georgia, “which was pretty sweet,” considering that they are one of the strongest Tier Two nations in the world.
St. Senans RFC is McNamara’s home rugby club in Ireland, while his S&C journey began with a BSc in Tralee Institute of Technology’s Fitness Professional course.
He joined the Clare hurling set-up in 2013, working as an assistant to the highly-regarded Joe O’Connor with the senior team and heading up the S&C programme for the minors.
Georgia centre Giorgi Koshadze scores in the recent 50-6 win over Germany.
McNamara set up and ran the Gold Standard Fitness gym with a friend in Shannon, while also gaining valuable work experience with Munster under Feargal O’Callaghan, and also taking on rugby roles with Garryowen and Ardscoil Rís in recent years.
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Last summer, he felt he needed a “break from Ireland” and had a desire to move into professional sport, with his successful application to Georgia proving the perfect opportunity.
“I look after the backs, so I run the whole programme for the backs,” says McNamara of his role in the Georgian programme. “Gym, conditioning and a lot of the speed work.
“It’s great they gave me the responsibility, but I worked hard for it too. They tested me out a bit, I was competent and away we went.”
McNamara is working under head of S&C Irakli Chkonia and Liverpool man Ryan Gibney with the Lelos, and says the players he trains are “freak athletes,” with centres benching 140kg “for fun.” The famous Georgian props, meanwhile, are lifting “scary numbers.”
“You’re not trying to develop strength like you might do in Ireland, where you might be working with first or second-year athletes,” says McNamara.
“These guys come from a great strength background, they’re phenomenal at Olympic lifting, wrestling and judo, so there’s definitely a transfer over there. It’s not right that the Georgian players are categorised as lesser, because they are super.”
The aforementioned Georgian front rows are highly sought after within professional rugby, with U20 players regularly being lured off to France. The locks and back rows are increasingly in demand too.
The majority of Georgia’s backs are based in the domestic Didi 10 – or Top 10 – league, meaning McNamara is hands on with them for most of the year.
“It’s very similar to Munster academy players, let’s say,” explains McNamara. “They spend the majority of the week training with us and then go back to their clubs at the weekend.
Georgia are hungry for more Tier One Tests. Source: PA Wire/PA Images
“You get great face time and we’re developing non-stop.”
Settled into a professional set up, McNamara is thriving on the opportunity to help the Georgians be better rugby athletes.
“Every year, we’re getting a better understanding of S&C, as a community, about how our work fits into the game plan, how to get it to translate between pitch and gym,” says McNamara.
“We’re looking into every aspect of human performance now, from sleep to nutrition to recovery, absolutely everything. The bullshit is gone out of S&C and that’s great.
“It’s gone away from 10 years ago, when it was maybe just ‘get them as big as possible and let them run into each other.’ We’re looking into all sorts of intricacies and making it better.”
His compatriot Farrell’s work with Georgia is heavily founded in the ‘intricacies’ involved in the S&C department, with his sports science role revolving around running the Lelos‘ GPS system, provided by Dundalk firm STATSports.
Carlow man Farrell played hooker for Carlow RFC throughout his youth, and first dived into the backroom side of rugby by undertaking a Master’s degree in Sports Performance Analysis at Carlow IT in 2014.
He finished that degree soon after arriving in Georgia last summer, submitting a fascinating thesis on offloading at the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
Farrell spent two years working as an analyst for Carlow GAA from 2014 onwards, and even though he is based in Tbilisi now, he is working remotely for the Carlow hurlers and also Declan Fassbender’s Gonzaga College team – who are into their first-ever Leinster Schools Senior Cup semi-final this year.
A season working as performance analyst for Lansdowne FC under former Wales and Ireland U20 coach Mike Ruddock in 2015/16 was also an invaluable experience for Farrell.
Farrell learned huge amounts from Ruddock. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO
“I picked up a lot of stuff from Mike, particularly on his game plan,” says the Carlow man. “It was really an eye-opener in terms of tactics and how he plays the game. It would have been purely video stuff I was doing for him, so the reviews each week would have been eye-opening for me.
“He’s a Grand Slam-winning coach, so not a bad guy to be learning from in rugby.”
Georgia boss Haig, a Kiwi, has continued Farrell’s rugby education, while working with scrum coach Brad Harris and visiting backs coach Richard Graham has furthered the learning.
Farrell’s work with Georgia also involves elements of performance analysis, including on match day when he provides live tackle, penalty, lineout and scrum stats to Haig and his assistants.
Heading up the GPS work is his primary function, however, and given the increased focus on the intensity of training at the top levels of rugby – Eddie Jones and his tactical periodisation has only added to the focus – it’s important work.
“It would involve tracking and analysing training loads from the week, distances covered, accelerations, decelerations, tops speeds and more,” says Farrell.
“That would be more for the S&C staff, but it’s about training intensities matching game intensities, so you’re using conditioning drills in training that mimic game intensity.
“We had Professor Liam Kilduff from Swansea, another Irish guy, in with us for a couple of weeks and he was giving us his knowledge on GPS; just that players should be hitting 95% of their top speeds every week to reduce injury risk in games. He was a big help, so that’s the kind of stuff you’d be tracking.
“On a Thursday, you might do a good warm-up and then the players might do a sprint if the session on the Tuesday wasn’t very intense. You’re constantly checking everything.”
Farrell also tracks the GPS data on matchday for Georgia, but he quickly dispels the myth that coaches use the stats to make decisions around substitutions.
Back row Beka Gorgadze scores against Germany.
“There wouldn’t really be markers,” says Farrell. “Your front rows are typically replaced at 60 minutes or 50 minutes, depending on the players and the game. But the coaches don’t really ask for distances covered or whatever on the GPS.
“It wouldn’t be as accurate live as it would be when you download it after the game and it still wouldn’t be 100% accurate to go off it. It’s more of a guide than anything else.”
Farrell and McNamara are both hopeful of extending their time in Georgia beyond the initial year they agreed to, and they may yet be around for the day that the Lelos are finally given the respect they deserve on the global stage.
The will continue to excel in the Rugby Europe Championship, but promotion into the top tier of the game is a clear objective.
“That’s the goal really, to be considered a Tier One nation,” says Farrell. “It’s difficult to be considered a Tier Two nation when you’ve won this competition for six years in a row and you’re looking comfortable enough again this year.”
Georgia have gained major support for their push to take the next step in rugby, whether that is in club competition or into the Six Nations, as the global game demands that doors are not shut on progress and growth.
“If you look at the history of the Six Nations B for the last couple of years, there has only been one winner,” says McNamara. “For me, in my opinion, rugby is supposed to be about doing the right things to get to the right places.
“Knocking on the door all the time, someone has to answer at some stage. For me, if they want to let the game develop, they have to let the lads at least have more Tier One games. Look at Argentina and how well they’ve done since they’ve been allowed to play in top-level competition non-stop.
“If you want to develop, they’ve got to get games. If you see the lads coming through here, I don’t think it’s going to be a flash in the pan.
“Some of the lads in the U20s will shine at the JWC, so it’s not just one team in Georgia or a golden-age team, it’s a conveyor belt of lads coming through.”
– This article was updated at 2.10pm to updated ‘Fergal O’Callaghan’ to ‘Feargal O’Callaghan’.
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