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Last Updated: Wednesday, 24 September, 2003, 13:37 GMT 14:37 UK
Diplomacy the key for Georgia
By Dmitry Shishkin and Matt Majendie

Ilian Zedguinidze
Zedguinidze has seen Georgian rugby grow rapidly
It is unlikely Ilian Zedguinidze's degree in foreign diplomacy will do much good when Georgia step up for their first ever World Cup.

The captain of the Lelos - the team's nickname, which literally means try - studied at Tbilisi University in the Georgian capital before taking up rugby professionally.

But even his training - which has left him fluent in several languages - looks unlikely to help as Georgia prepare to take on some of the game's heavyweights.

The 26-year-old told the BBC Sport website: "Realistically our team's chances are not very high. The group we are in is a very tough one.

"England are clear favourites and South Africa have shown to be strong. Even Uruguay are tricky - they have experience and guts."

But Zedguinidze, the 11th captain in the history of Georgian rugby, is unperturbed by the prospect of his team becoming the whipping boys of Pool C..

"The very fact of qualifying for the World Cup is a major achievement for us," he added.

"We just need to demonstrate the sort of team we are."

With rugby unknowns such as Makho Urjukashvili and Irakli Abusseridze among others, Georgia's Cup squad pales into insignificance compared to the sport's elite.

ZEDGUINIDZE PROFILE
DOB: 20/1/77
POB: Tbilisi
Position: Number eight
Debut: 15/10/99
Club: Rovigo (Italy)

The sport remains in its relative infancy in the Caucasus, with Georgia's rugby union only dating from 1964. However, interest in rugby is growing at an incredible rate.

When much of the current squad played their first international, they were watched by just 500 people. Now their games boast an average crowd of 40,000.

And Zedguinidze promises there is more to come.

"We are constantly progressing and, after this World Cup, we are going to jump several steps up the rugby ladder," he said.

"I can already see our young lads are better than we were at their age, which bodes well."

Despite his optimism, Zedguinidze, who took over the captaincy ahead of the World Cup qualifying campaign, has had venture foreign fields to pursue his rugby career.

We don't even have a decent rugby stadium in Georgia
Ilian Zedguinidze

The majority of the current team play in either France or Italy due to what the Italian-based Zedguinidze sees as a shortage of facilities.

He added: "The Government support still leaves a lot to be desired. Until recently the authorities appeared not to recognise the public interest in rugby.

"When we all moved abroad it was the only way to play rugby. We needed a place to stay and train. We don't even have a decent rugby stadium in Georgia."

The situation is changing and the growing support for the national side is testament to that.

A 70,000-strong crowd watched them book their World Cup place against Russia, setting up the dream fixtures against England and South Africa.

Critics argue the gulf in playing class could lead to major injuries, but the Georgian captain takes a different stance.

"Not at all," he said. "This is a big step forward to compete against major players in the tournament."

The bulky number eight, however, is keeping tight-lipped about who he plans to swap shirts with at the tournament.

"Take England or South Africa, they are studded with stars," he said. "I take anyone's shirt."





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