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Last Updated: Wednesday, 24 September, 2003, 13:37 GMT 14:37 UK
Georgia grateful for French connection
Georgian coach Claude Saurel (right) with captain Ilia Zedguinidze
Saurel (right) predicts a bright future for Georgian rugby
Not even the most ardent Georgian fan would be naive enough to suggest they will come close to troubling group opponents England, South Africa or Samoa for that matter at the World Cup.

But the Lelos' arrival at the tournament has already done wonders for Franco-Georgian relations.

The team have been coaxed there by Frenchman Claude Saurel and two-thirds of the squad currently ply their trade in French club rugby.

Saurel has been the key figure in getting Georgia to their first World Cup after an impressive victory against Russia over the course of two legs.

In 1997 he was appointed to assess the standard of the game and improve its development and the former Soviet state is already beginning to reap the rewards of his efforts.

Aside from World Cup qualification, crowds and general interest in the sport are on the up.

And Saurel told the International Rugby Board website: "Qualifying for the World Cup gives strength to the whole interior of the sport here.

Nicknamed the Lelos after a traditional Georgian ball game
Team jerseys are wine red in honour of the country's wine production
The team celebrated World Cup victory against Russia in the Irish pub in Tbilisi
Its rugby union was officially founded in 1964

"Qualification has very much been a collective effort. The sport is flourishing and rugby is becoming a major part of Georgia."

Money and a lack of sufficient IRB funding still remain an obstacle for Georgian rugby authorities as they bid to rival football in terms of popularity.

A recent World Cup warm-up tour had to be cancelled because the team could not afford to go.

But Saurel is not alone in his quest.

Another important Franco-Georgian influence is Georgian rugby union vice-president Zaza Kasrashvili, who runs a business in Montpellier.

For Kasrashvili, the team's World Cup qualification could not have come at a better time as he battles to increase their profile and their opportunities for higher profile opponents.

He said: "I hope it will be easier now because we have proved we are in the top 20 in the world."

The Lelos are adamant that the World Cup and its continued French connection will help the team remain in the world's top 20 and prosper in the future.

Links to more Georgia stories


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