The rise of Georgia wing Davit Niniashvili
Davit Niniashvili is too shy to respond when asked to describe his strengths as a player, but his Lyon and Georgia team-mate Beka Saginadze is sitting alongside and chips in: “Speed, strong in attack and contesting for a high ball.”
Fortunately for club and country, Niniashvili is not so shy about displaying those strengths on the pitch. He was twice named Player of the Match on Lyon’s journey to winning the European Challenge Cup final – in the pool win over Perpignan and the quarter-final triumph over Glasgow in which he scored a brace – and has added a spark to Georgia’s back-line , too, since making his debut aged 18 against Ireland in the autumn of 2020.
A fast learner who can play on the wing or at full-back, he has adapted well as he’s moved through the ranks. He was first called into the Georgia set-up as a 17-year-old; The pandemic resulted in the cancellation of the U20 World Championship, so he was unable to show his talents on the age-grade stage, but Levan Maisashvili named him in an extended senior squad in mid-2020.
A few months later, he was coming off the bench at the Aviva Stadium in the Autumn Nations Cup, with Maisashvili impressed by his maturity.
“When I first trusted him with a game, which was against Ireland, the thing I appreciated most was that he didn’t go back to his mistakes and focused on the next job,” says the Lelos head coach of the winger’s ability to put errors behind him. “This is one of the characteristics that distinguishes an experienced player from an inexperienced one.”
Maisashvili also notes how well the teenager takes on feedback and implements suggestions from his coaches and team-mates – “I do not remember giving him the same remark twice”.
He has settled in just as well at Lyon, where he signed as an ‘espoir’ (think academy player) for the 2021-22 season but has gone on to establish himself in the first team, playing in more than a dozen league matches and being a regular starter in their European campaign.
He has scored important tries too; there was a 78th-minute winner against Racing 92 in January while his pace came to the fore with his double against the Warriors. And at the end of the season he was selected by the Barbarians for their fixture against an England XV at Twickenham.
“The Top 14 was my dream from childhood,” says Niniashvili, who took up the game aged eight at RC Khvamli in Tbilisi. Swimming, basketball and football were his other sporting pursuits when he was younger, but the friends made and relationships built in rugby saw the oval ball win out, so it’s little surprise he mentions Saginadze in aiding his transition in France. “He helped me to adapt to life in Lyon. I really enjoy living and playing here.”
Front-rowers have long trodden a path from Georgia to the Top 14 but these days they are joined by back-rowers, scrum-halves, wings… The Lelos may be famed for their pack and particularly their scrummaging ability, but players like Niniashvili highlight how they are trying to evolve a more all-court game.
If they are to challenge for a quarter-final place at next year’s Rugby World Cup, they will need to be a threat with ball in hand as much as at the set-piece. Niniashvili is keen to stress the importance of having both elements and adds: “This will be the first World Cup for me and I hope I’ll show my best.”
He has a clear idea of what he wants to achieve as a player and that focus is also highlighted by Maisashvili: “He achieves everything he sets as a goal. His quick adaptation (to Test rugby) is due to his bold nature – he who does not dare does not achieve the result – as well as hard work and perseverance.
“Hard work is definitely his strongest side. Humble and self-critical, he also excels in good communication and has good analytical skills. He is strong in the contact area, explosive and loves to take the lead in the game.”
That work ethic is a point Niniashvili echoes himself, recognizing what it takes to reach the top of the game. Away from developing his rugby, he is a keen cook and he certainly has all the ingredients to become a national star, if not a world one.
As former All Blacks fly-half Lima Sopoaga, who plays alongside him at Lyon, says: “I really enjoy Nini’s style of rugby. He’s young, ambitious and carefree when it comes to rugby. A kid who is super eager to learn and always putting in 100%.
“He has a massive, massive future in the Top 14. I won’t be surprised if he becomes one of the premier wingers/full-backs in the years to come.”
Niniashvili names Mamuka Gorgodze and Merab Kvirikashvili as his rugby heroes. Given what he has already achieved, you can envisage him joining them in the pantheon of Georgian greats.
This article originally appeared in the July 2022 edition of Rugby World.
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