When Georgia take on Ireland in Dublin this Sunday, it will be an interesting experience for Georgia’s Northern Irish attack coach, Neil Doak.
The former scrum-half was called up (but not capped) for Ireland’s 2003 World Cup squad, was on the coaching staff when they toured North America in 2013, has been involved as a player and coach at Pro14-side Ulster for over two decades and has represented Ireland as a first-class cricketer.
“It’ll be strange, to say the least,” the 48-year-old admitted ahead of this weekend’s clash, “but something I’m looking forward to.”
Since joining the Georgia team in early October, Doak’s key focus has been on improving his player’ mentality and concentration. The importance of pairing mental strength with physical attributes is something Doak learnt during his varied sporting career and will likely prove important when rank-outsiders Georgia take to the Aviva.
Doak explained: “The biggest thing that I took out of cricket was that I wasn’t maybe as talented as some of the other guys but I tried to work my socks off and make sure that I put in the hours to get better.
“I think like anything you have to put the work in to reap any benefit and I think from a coaching point of view, on a professional level, it’s about the small details, it’s about being able to perform your basics under extreme pressure.”
The importance of performing the basics under pressure correctly is not lost on Leicester Tigers and Georgia hooker, Shalva Mamukashvili. The 30-year-old, who has amassed 75 caps for his country, said after the England game that the number of mistakes made by the team were “unacceptable.”
Mamukashvili has looked to use his experience to help the younger members of the squad (though he insists he is not a father-figure in the camp, more an “older brother”) as they try to improve their game management.
“I’m always trying to support the youngsters who have their first or second caps, if some of them are nervous, I’m always trying to be positive and support the younger guys,” he explains.
Keeping a cool head under pressure is key for Mamukashvili, who adds: “When the tier one teams are building the pressure on the opposition they control the game building the pressure and at some point the opposition cracks.”
A baptism of fire
When Georgia take on Ireland, they will do so as rank outsiders. Ireland swatted aside an out-of-sorts Wales before an 11-point-defeat to England in their last fixture. Georgia have lost their two Autumn Nations fixtures against England and Wales by a cumulative total of 58-0. Realistically, anything less than a comfortable victory for Ireland would represent a surprise.
However, in the two months Doak has been with the side, he’s been keen to stress the progress being made by the Lelos. For some of the Georgia players, the chastening 48-7 October defeat to Scotland was the first rugby they had played since last year’s World Cup in Japan.
“It’s been a little bit of a baptism of fire,” said Doak, though he stressed that the squad is becoming a more cohesive unit as it spends more time together. His side’s progress seems to bear this out.
Although Georgia failed to put the England defence under any pressure, the team looked improved since their drubbing at Murrayfield. Against Wales, the side looked better still and the match never looked truly out of their reach until Rhys Webb’s late try added some gloss to the scoreline.
An education in rugby
Regardless of the score on Sunday, the Georgian team regard the experience of playing such a calibre of opposition as valuable.
The Lelos occupy an unfortunate middle ground in European rugby, too good for the Rugby Europe International Championships, which they have won nine times in the last ten years, but probably not good enough to compete with Six Nations sides (although they have been touted as a replacement for Italy in recent years).
“Teams like Wales, England, Ireland are the best in Europe and some of the best in the world,” Mamukashvili said, adding: “We need such games regularly.
“We [usually get] chance to play tier one nations once or twice a year. [But this year] we play five games against tier one teams, it’s an unbelievable opportunity and I think after this tournament the Georgia team will be much different. It will be a big step up and a big step forward for us.”
Doak agrees that playing such a high level of opposition will be beneficial for Georgia: “To get these three, four games on the bounce educates the players of the level they need to be at.”
When Georgia take to the field in Dublin, they will do so unsure of whether it will be their last game of the tournament, as a COVID-19 outbreak has wrought havoc upon Fiji, their likely finals opponents.
If that’s the case, Mamukashvili knows that it likely represents their final chance to show the watching world what they can do.
Ireland host Georgia live on RTÉ and Channel 4 at 14:00 this Sunday.