Rugby
Jamie Braidwood, ESPN 6d

Italy-Georgia moves Six Nations debate on to the pitch after 10 years of talking

Georgia coach Milton Haig is frustrated. "It's taken over 10 years for us to get this game," he tells ESPN of his side's match against Italy in Florence on Saturday. For some onlookers, it will be a referendum on whether Georgia deserve a chance to replace Italy in the Six Nations. For Haig, it's a chance to move along a conversation that has been on a loop since a great showing by his side at the Rugby World Cup three years ago.

Georgia, one place above Italy in the world rankings, are knocking on the door of the Six Nations. After impressing, albeit in defeat, against New Zealand and Argentina in the pool phase at the 2015 Rugby World Cup, there have been repeated calls for Georgia to be brought into the fold. Italy, without a Six Nations win since 2015, are the side most at risk of losing out. Saturday's match is the first time the countries have met since 2003. There may be envy, jealousy, but above all there will be a steely Georgian determination to show the world of rugby what they can do.

As a Tier Two nation, Georgia's opportunities to play the best sides in the world are extremely limited. Instead, the Lelos play the majority of their international fixtures against the likes of Belgium, Germany and Spain -- usually winning by a clear margin. They have won seven of the past eight European Rugby Championships -- the second-tier competition that runs parallel to the Six Nations in February and March each year -- most recently getting revenge on Romania for upsetting their streak in 2017.

But they are in rugby limbo. The lack of opportunities to test themselves against the world elite leaves Georgia stuck alone at the top of the middle of World Rugby's order. It is a situation Italy themselves were in not too long ago, before they joined the Six Nations in 2000. The Azzurri have come a long way since then -- even if they have won more Wooden Spoons (13) than they have Six Nations matches (12) -- while Georgia have battled to try and gain momentum.

Although the result of one Test match won't influence any kind of decision around the Six Nations, Saturday is an opportunity to kick the conversation along. Georgia have been consistently ranked higher than Italy over the last few years but have yet to have the chance to show it on the field.

"There is a huge amount of anticipation in Georgia," Haig told ESPN. "There have always been Georgians crying out, 'Why aren't we playing Italy?' It's a combination of a lot of discussion with World Rugby and Italy and we've finally got to the point where we are able to play each other.

"We've said many a time that we would like to be involved in the Six Nations -- whether it was an extended format or the introduction of promotion and relegation, we don't care. We just want the opportunity."

Rugby has developed considerably in Georgia since Haig arrived from New Zealand in 2011. It is the country's most popular sport and is growing year on year, with more junior players entering its academy system and playing at the newly-built national facilities in Tbilisi.

Despite Georgia's lack of presence at the top level of international rugby, the Lelos have a forward pack that is admired around the world. The size, build and mentality of their forwards, as well as their skill in the set-piece, is unrivalled when compared to their Tier Two peers, and will be key as they attempt to crack rugby's elite.

For Graham Rowntree, the opportunity to work with such a renowned pack was too good to turn down. The former England international was named Georgia's forwards coach in September and Saturday will be his first competitive match with the team.

"It's probably one of our biggest fixtures for a long time," Rowntree said. "They are hungry as a nation to move up another level and it's a brilliant time to be involved with that in mind. They've got the respect worldwide, now our performances need to be at a level where we can show the world that we are capable of moving up. Until we do that, our performances are all we can control."

Although much of the build-up focuses around Georgia, Italy are prepared for the challenge that is to come. They have their position in the Six Nations to defend, although head coach Conor O'Shea admitted last week that he was prepared for the "usual tripe" surrounding his team's place in the competition.

The Italians, understandably, feel they should be looking up rather than down, but after a heavy defeat to Ireland last weekend, and with difficult fixtures against Australia and the All Blacks to come, the need to secure a win ahead of an important year is greater than ever.

"If anybody has a point to prove it's us," Italy's attack coach Mike Catt told ESPN. "There has been a lot of talk about Italy leaving the Six Nations and all that sort of stuff, but that was before Conor O'Shea took over and before the system started sorting itself out."

In an interesting subplot to Saturday's match, Catt played and coached alongside Rowntree for England for almost 20 years. "[Rowntree's] expertise definitely helps them," Catt said. "We're looking forward to a good physical battle in Florence. It's a home game and the expectation is for us to win."

An increase in matches between Tier One and emerging nations is on World Rugby's agenda as part of its shake-up of the global calendar in two years' time. While that may produce some blowouts along the lines of New Zealand's thumping of Japan last weekend, it should also result in more games like the one in Florence, and a genuine pathway towards improvement for the likes of Georgia.

"Italy want to make sure that they hold that Six Nations spot and have credibility at the end of the year, while we want to make sure we put ourselves forward," Haig added, " and whoever wins the game has bragging rights for that moment. We understand how important it is for both."

This weekend's four-match combo of England-New Zealand, Wales-Australia, France-South Africa and Ireland-Argentina looks like a quarterfinal line-up at a World Cup, but Italy-Georgia could be the most significant contest of all.

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