Georgia beat Wales in Cardiff last autumn. Ashley Crowden/INPHO

Georgia's brilliant rise continues but Lelos' future in Test rugby is uncertain

The Black Lion club side will play in the EPCR Challenge Cup next season.

THE MOST WELCOME rugby news of the day came from EPCR with confirmation that Georgian club Black Lion will be part of the Challenge Cup next season.

After travelling to South Africa and South America in search of challenging games in the last two years, the Georgians have finally found competition closer to home.

It’s the first time a team from Georgia will be involved in an EPCR tournament and it can only be seen as positive progress for the global game. It’s certainly a step that Georgian rugby was ready and waiting for. The Georgians are truly on a roll.

Anyone keeping a close eye on the current World Rugby U20 Championship will have been impressed by Georgia’s results. After a 10-point defeat to hosts South Africa, they’ve deservedly beaten Argentina and Italy to continue their ever-improving form at underage levels. Georgia narrowly missed out on a semi-final spot.

The senior national team, the Lelos, have also been on a superb run recently. As well as continuing their historic dominance of the Rugby Europe Championship [the tier below the Six Nations], Georgia have beaten Italy and Wales in the past year, their first-ever wins over Six Nations sides.

They go into the World Cup with big ambitions. Georgia will meet Wales again in Pool C as well as facing Australia, Fiji, and Portugal. With plenty of grit, power, and technical quality up front, as well as stars like 20-year-old Lyon sensation Davit Niniashvili to call on in the backline, they will be aiming to cause a shock in France.

So news of the Black Lion club being accepted into the Challenge Cup keeps the good vibes going. Black Lion is part of the Georgian Rugby Union so the squad includes many of their international players and the Lelos’ coaching staff. While Georgia has its own semi-pro league, the Didi 10, Black Lion were launched for the start of the Rugby Europe Super Cup in 2021.

Competing against sides from Spain, Portugal, Belgium, the Netherlands, and elsewhere, Black Lion won the inaugural title and defended it successfully in 2022. They’ll be favourites once again in the third edition at the end of this year.

nikolozi-sutidze-celebrates-after-scoring-a-try Georgia have grown as a force in underage rugby. Ben Brady / INPHO Ben Brady / INPHO / INPHO

The Georgians craved greater competition and were delighted when South Africa Rugby invited them to play in last year’s Currie Cup First Division, the second tier of the national provincial competition which also involves sides from Zimbabwe and Kenya. The Black Lion were excellent, reaching the semi-finals and only losing after extra time.

Again, they wanted more exposure so this year saw the Georgians travelling to South America and setting up camp in Uruguay for 40 days. From that base, led by Georgia head coach Levan Maisashvili, they played five games against Super Rugby Americas teams. Around half of the Black Lion squad was made up of Lelos players. So this was a vital part of their World Cup preparations, while the remainder of the national squad were playing for their European clubs.

The Georgians plan to return to formally take part in Super Rugby Americas next year, underlining their intent to keep pushing for progress.

Involvement in the EPCR Challenge Cup next season is the latest welcome development. They’ll face Gloucester, Clermont, Castres, and Scarlets in their pool, with the two home games to be hosted in Tbilisi. What a trip that will be for lucky visiting fans.

With all going so well with their club side, the Georgian Rugby Union have also been busy continuing their efforts to get more exposure to the top levels of Test rugby. They’ve been crying out for more exposure to the leading nations for years now, as well as appealing for inclusion in the Six Nations, but their wait may go on for some time yet.

Last weekend finally brought confirmation of the new biennial 12-team ‘Nations Championship’ competition starting in 2026. It will involve the Six Nations and four Rugby Championship sides, as well as two invited nations. It should be an exciting product for supporters of the teams involved.

Owned directly by SANZAAR and the Six Nations, not World Rugby, this new competition will help the already strong nations to get stronger and probably richer. Moving in this direction was always certain once private equity firm CVC started buying into rugby. It all seems great for those already dining at the top table, but one can understand the deep concerns and anger felt by unions who aren’t.

japan-celebrate-at-the-final-whistle Japan are certain to be included. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

World Rugby will run a new second-tier competition in the same July and November windows and there has been talk of “paving the way” for promotion and relegation but it’s vague. Indeed, word is that the first promotion into the top tier of the ‘Nations Championship’ might not happen until 2030. The fear is that the divide between the strongest and the rest will only grow in the meantime.

And who are the two invited nations to be? Japan reached the quarter-finals of the last World Cup, have a professional league, and deserve the shot they look certain to get. Fiji have been crying out for more exposure and have their own impressive success story with the Fijian Drua club side making a dent in Super Rugby. They’re the other favourites.

Samoa and Tonga have major potential to go to the next level, especially after World Rugby’s change in the eligibility laws allowing them to welcome in some world-class players.

Georgia will have been pointing to all of their aforementioned progress and more when it comes to stating their case. They’re currently ranked 11th in the world, ahead of Samoa, Fiji, Italy, and Tonga. Do they deserve to be left out in the cold in 2026?

But there’s only space for two. If they are to miss out, Georgia will have to continue their often thankless trudge to become one of the elite from an even more difficult and disadvantaged position.

They’ve been pressing for the Six Nations to open its doors to no avail and there could be more disappointment to come despite Georgian rugby’s progress.

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