Richie Dixon is proud of the steps forward that Georgia have made as a rugby union playing nation
Dixon proud of Georgia's advances ahead of Scotland clashes
Richie Dixon laughs when asked if he's heard the one about the Georgia rugby team using spare parts from an old Soviet tractor as a scrummaging machine.
The affable, Scottish-born coach of Georgia's national side admits that could very well have been the case before he arrived in Tbilisi last November to take over a squad making their third appearance at the Rugby World Cup.
But Dixon, a former Scotland flanker, is pleased to report that his team now have a proper, regulation training aid for their forwards. More importantly, he is passionate about the future of rugby in the country, predicting it will someday supplant football as the No 1 sport in Georgia.
The "Lelos", as the team are known, face an uphill battle on the playing fields in New Zealand, though, with only one win in eight matches in previous World Cups. They begin again today against Dixon's former national team, Scotland in Invercargill.
Back home in Georgia, where Lelos refers to "lelo-burti", or lelo-ball, an ancient free-for-all form of football, new regulation-sized rugby pitches and stadiums and training facilities and a surging interest in the sport has Dixon excited.
He stresses "regulation-sized" for a good reason. Banned from most football pitches, rugby teams had to train on pitches often 40 to 45 metres wide, or long, depending on which way the players looked at it.
"Even if you turn it around the other way, you can't develop a rugby programme like that," Dixon said.
Things have changed in the past few years, Dixon said, and the upsurge is noticeable even since his arrival nearly a year ago.
"Two years ago, we had something like 2,800 players from six-year-olds to adults," Dixon said. "Now we have 750 adult players, a Super League of eight teams, an A-league of under 18s and a B-league of under 16s."
Dixon credits the players with creating that level of excitement. He talks frequently of "how proud I am of the boys." Yesterday, on the eve of their first match, the players visited a primary school in the morning and a local hospital in the afternoon.
"Most of the guys are born in the villages, when they are youngsters they do lots of chores," Dixon said.
"I think their strength is quite natural, and obviously it is topped up by work in the gym."
Dixon played for Scotland from 1969 to 1980 and coached the national side from 1995 to 1998, so he is well-placed to make comparisons between his homeland and the sport's situation in Georgia.
After independence in 1991 following the break-up of the Soviet Union, Georgia suffered from civil unrest and economic problems for most of the rest of that decade.
Most recently, Georgia and Russia, another former Soviet republic, fought a five-day war in 2008.
"Obviously there are financial implications," Dixon said. "Scotland is a much more mature union and also has a different economic environment to us. But I must say the preparations with the guys is very similar to Scotland - they know that it is the sum of the parts.
"And we have had tremendous support from the government and sponsors.
"The boys have been well-received, so it's now up to them to see how they perform."
* Associated Press