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In 2013 I wrote a column stating why USA Rugby needed to put a target on Canada’s back. At the time, both the 7s and 15s men’s Eagles were 2-10 against the Canadians in their last 12 meetings. And we needed to beat Canada to qualify for the World Cup as the second seed from the Americas and reach Rio. We did the former, but not the latter.
Well, at least on the men’s side, we’ve caught Canada. In 15s, we’ve beaten the Canadians five-straight times. In 7s, the Eagles are 7-3-2 against Canada on the World Series under Mike Friday, and they did indeed beat the Canadians to qualify for Rio. If John Mitchell keeps the winning streak alive in the coming weeks, he’ll be the first-ever coach to finish his tenure against Canada with a winning record.
In addition to keeping Canada at arm’s length, the USA needs to keep others at bay. The country most capable of overtaking America is Georgia, which the Eagles take on Saturday at Fifth Third Bank Stadium in suburban Atlanta. That may seem like an awkward statement, as the Lelos are currently ranked 12th and the Eagles 17th. But the rankings don’t tell the whole story.
The World Rugby rankings have no brain and no human component. They are compiled strictly on math, so they don’t fully account for strength and length of schedule. Georgia plays more winnable games than the USA every year, and the Lelos get fewer Tier 1 matches.
Since the USA and Georgia last met in 2013, a two-point win for the Eagles, Georgia has played just two Tier 1 matches outside of the World Cup. The USA has played five. The winnable matches come via the Rugby Europe Championship against teams like Belgium, Germany, Russia, Spain and Romania. The USA now has the Americas Rugby Championship to mop up easy wins in, but it just finished its second season, while Georgia has claimed the second-tier European title eight of the last 10 years.
In lieu of World Rugby’s rankings, a look at the head-to-head results provides a more comprehensive look at how Georgia and the USA have traditionally stacked up on the pitch, especially given they’ve only ever met four times, all of those meetings coming since 2009.
The USA won that first match, 31-13, at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Denver. The Lelos won the return game in 2010 in Tbilisi, a tilt which went wildly over 80 minutes until the home team was able to pull out the last-second win. The Eagles won the next two, 36-20 in Glendale, Colo. in 2012 and 25-23 in Rustavi, Georgia in 2013.
So the results show the USA should be considered slightly higher than Georgia on the international rugby totem pole, but just about everywhere else, Georgia looks to be in the lead.
At the age-grade level, Georgia is certainly more successful, having won the Junior World Trophy in 2015. The Junior All-Americans did the same in 2012, earning promotion to the top-tier U20s World Rugby Championship the following year, but the MJAAs were bludgeoned at every turn and haven’t been a real contender in the Trophy since.
Georgia, on the other hand, avoided relegation, finishing higher than both Italy and Japan in 2016. The junior Lelos are currently in the midst of a second-straight Championship campaign, and they just upset Argentina Tuesday, avoiding relegation and guaranteeing a third appearance.
Money is a main reason why Georgia’s age-grade program, which is well backed, has succeeded where the MJAAs, who operate on a joke of a budget, have failed, and it likely will be the main reason Georgia surpasses the USA at the senior level, too. The Georgian Rugby Union is backed not only by the government, but by billionaire former president Bidzina Ivanishvili, who has reportedly pumped around $53 million into the GRU in recent years.
On American soil, it takes New Zealand to sell out the 61,500-seat Soldier Field. The largest attendance for an Eagle game that didn’t feature the All Blacks is less than half of that – 23,212 – which is how many turned out for the World Cup warm-up against Australia in 2015. In Georgia, the Lelos regularly draw more than 50,000 for home matches.
Because of Ivanishvili’s investment, the country’s rising competitiveness on the world stage and big attendance numbers, the Pro 12 is rumored to be considering expansion with a team in Tbilisi, just like it is in America.
Because of this opportunity, and perhaps others, like the first 15s World Cup to be hosted by a second-tier nation, it’s important that we keep Georgia at bay. We may not be able to win a match of big-bank-takes-little-bank, but, at least for now, we can beat the Lelos on the field. Let’s keep that going for as long as possible.