Former All Black captain to advise Georgia

Former All Black captain Sean Fitzpatrick announced on Saturday that he has become an adviser to the national rugby union in Georgia, an ex-Soviet republic seeking to become a force in the world game.

“What I’d like to try and achieve is to make a nation like Georgia more competitive on the world stage,” Fitzpatrick, one of New Zealand’s finest ever players who captained the All Blacks during the 1990s, told a news conference in Tbilisi.

Georgia will take part in its third successive Rugby World Cup this year in New Zealand, and sees the involvement of Fitzpatrick as an adviser and an ambassador for the national game as another step towards joining the international elite.

“Sean’s help and fresh ideas will increase the possibilities for Georgian rugby,” said the president of the Georgian Rugby Union, Giorgi Nijaradze.

“It’s a sign of how rugby is developing in Georgia that someone of the stature of Sean is willing to come here, and his experience is going to be of immeasurable value,” said the national team’s Scottish coach, Richie Dixon.

Fitzpatrick said that he had been attracted by Georgia after watching an impressive performance by the national team at the 2007 Rugby World Cup.

“What I saw was a country that has a whole lot of passion and commitment,” he said.

Since his retirement through injury after his final test appearance in 1997, Fitzpatrick has worked as a television commentator and run a motivational speaking company.

“It would have been very easy for me to stay in England or New Zealand but I think it’s important to grow the game,” he said.

He joked that Georgia — a small, mountainous country with a population of fewer than five million — was “very similar to New Zealand, it’s just that we have more sheep”.

Rugby has become increasingly popular in recent years in Georgia as the national team has become more successful.

Georgia qualified for the 2011 Rugby World Cup after winning the 2009 European Nations Cup in a campaign that culminated in an emotional victory over political rivals Russia, just over a year after the former Soviet neighbours fought a brief but brutal war.

Some Georgians claim an affinity with rugby because an anarchic full-contact ball game called Lelo has been played in the country for generations.

During the annual Lelo match, two halves of a remote village compete against each other to force a heavy leather ball filled with soil and wine into a river on the opposing side’s territory.

The Georgian national rugby team — known as the Lelos — take their nickname from the traditional sport.

The 2011 Rugby World Cup kicks off with hosts New Zealand playing Tonga in Auckland on Friday September 9 and finishes with the final also in Auckland on Sunday October 23.

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