SANDY PARK, Exeter -- It has been a World Cup to remember for Georgia scrum-half Vasil Lobzhanidze. At 18 years and 340 days old, he became the tournament's youngest ever player when he starred in his nation's opening victory over Tonga.
Two-and-a-half weeks later, he was drinking beers and celebrating with his team-mates in the Sandy Park dressing room following a tense and scrappy triumph over Namibia. For the first time in Georgia's rugby history they had won two matches at a World Cup, results that have secured automatic qualification for Japan 2019.
The Lelos, led by Kiwi head coach Milton Haig and inspirational captain Mamuka Gorgodze, received a hero's welcome on their arrival at Tbilisi International Airport. Face-painted crowds greeted the players with flags and confetti as the celebrations continued. For Lobzhanidze, who was still at school during the last World Cup in New Zealand, his experiences in England surpassed even the wildest of dreams.
"My main goal wasn't to become the youngest player at the World Cup. It was to win two matches. I am the happiest person in the world right now because we achieved our goal," Lobzhanidze said after the victory against Namibia.
"I would never have imaged being stood here three years ago. I would have never imagined playing at the World Cup."
He never looked out of place, either. Following warm-up games against Newcastle and Japan, Haig started Lobzhanidze in their Pool C opener against Tonga, stating the youngster had been too good to drop. His faith was rewarded as Lobzhandize produced a spellbinding performance in Gloucester, instrumental in both the victory over the Pacific Islanders and helping turn Georgia's World Cup ambitions into reality.
"Now I know Aaron Smith of the All Blacks is the best scrum-half in the world -- to get to that level, I'll have to work my whole life" Vasil Lobzhanidze
After retaining him in the following defeat to Argentina, Haig opted to leave Lobzhanidze on the bench for Georgia's first ever Test against New Zealand. That is perhaps the biggest testament to Lobzhanidze's talent: Haig wanted his best players fit and available for the history-defining finale against Namibia, so 36 minutes against the All Blacks would have to do. It was more than enough time to have an impact on the teenager.
"Before the New Zealand match, I didn't have a scrum-half idol," Lobzhanidze said. "But now I know Aaron Smith of the All Blacks is the best scrum-half in the world. To get to that level, I'll have to work my whole life.
"For me, the goal is to play at the top level. My attitude is if you reach your goal, you just have to carry on. You have to strive for more -- to play at the top level and then do the maximum to become a better player."
His World Cup performances will have turned a few heads and there has already been talk of a lucrative move from current team Armazi Tbilisi, the Georgian top division side that he has played club rugby at since the age of 11.
England, Ireland, Wales and France all hold potential destinations for Lobzhanidze but, for him, it's the latter that seems most appealing.
"These countries are awesome and they've got all got top level championships. Maybe France [would be best] because the majority of my Georgia team-mates play there, so it would be ideal for me. But I would consider offers from any top clubs, I would jump on it."
If Lobzhanidze is to reach his potential then there is no doubt that he -- and Georgia as a nation -- needs to be exposed to top level rugby on a more regular basis. The performances of the Tier Two nations in England, led by Japan's historic victory over South Africa, have reignited debate over how frequently. or infrequently, they get to play their Tier One counterparts.
After Georgia's encouraging defeat to New Zealand at the Millennium Stadium, Haig pulled no punches in saying a potential inclusion in the Six Nations is needed if his side is to develop further. Lobzhanidze reiterated his coach's words and said the likes of Georgia need to be playing rugby's superpowers outside of World Cups if they are to improve.
"Tier Two is closing the gap on Tier One," he added. "Romania, Canada, Japan, as well as Georgia, are doing really well and both the gap and results to tier one nations are closing. Tier Two countries have really grown and if we get quality matches more than once every four years, the gap will become even smaller."