Aztec Rugby Tours Tbilisi on a Diplomatic Journey

[Use the link below to listen to the Sports MBA Podcast with Aztec Rugby Head Coach Alex Lichtig (SMBA ’16) Discussing the team’s trip to Georgia.]

When the Aztec Rugby team heard from head coach Alex Lichtig (SMBA ’16) that they would head to Georgia for spring break, most players assumed they’d be on a quick flight to Atlanta for an exhibition match with a southern university.  Instead, the group was informed that they’d be traveling over 7,000 miles away to Eurasia and the former Soviet republic of Georgia, the rugby-obsessed country on the Black Sea.   

Thanks to a satellite SDSU campus in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, the Aztecs were presented with an opportunity to represent the United States on a goodwill rugby tour celebrating 25 years of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Georgia.  Since its creation after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the democratic nation of Georgia has been a critical U.S. ally due to its geopolitically strategic location between Russia and Turkey.   

Prior to the trip, many students on the team wouldn’t have been able to find Georgia on a map; most were still in elementary school in 2008 when an armed conflict broke out between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Georgian President Mikheil Saakhashvili.  That August, violence broke out in Russian-backed separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.  The military aggressions lasted only a few weeks before EU intervention quickly brought about a cease fire, but the brief fighting left hundreds dead on both sides and resulted in ethnic cleansing of Georgians in South Ossetia.   

Occupying Russian troops forced the displacement of over 100,000 Georgians to other parts of the country.  These Georgians are domestic refugees fleeing armed conflict, and are referred to as “Internally Displaced Persons” (IDPs) by the UN.  To address the growing numbers of IDPs, the Georgian government created camps that are still in use today.  Members of the Aztec Rugby team had the opportunity to visit one of the largest IDP camps, Prezeti, located just outside Tbilisi.  The group toured the camp and put on a rugby clinic for the local youth.  Video of their visit is here

The group also traveled to the city of Gori, birthplace of Joseph Stalin and site of intense bombing during the Russian occupation in the 2008 conflict, to scrimmage against a local professional rugby club.  

The group of SDSU undergraduates was thrilled to participate in this rugby-centric cultural exchange and to learn more about the rich rugby culture of Georgia, who currently sit at #12 in the IRB world rankings, 5 spots ahead of the U.S.   While Georgia isn’t often top of mind as a rugby nation, they have had international success, and are home to Mamuka Gorgodze, the 6’5″, 260 lb. behemoth known as “Gorgodzilla” because he regularly does things like this and this to would-be tacklers. 

For a nation that loves rugby, a visit from an American university rugby team was the perfect way to bridge the cultural gap and foster goodwill between the SDSU undergraduates and their Georgian hosts.  The Aztecs trained every day, scrimmaged, and ended the trip with a competitive match. Meanwhile, the group was received by with dignitaries, visited cultural sites, and even met with wounded warriors with the Georgian Ministry of Defence.

Thanks to the U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi, these students had a once-in-a-lifetime experience and returned home with a newfound appreciation for the country and its people. Video summaries of every day are here on the Aztec Rugby Facebook page.  

To recap the entire Georgian visit, Aztec Rugby Head Coach (and San Diego Gulls Manager of Corporate Partnerships) Alex Lichtig (SMBA ’16) sat down with SDSU Sports MBA program director Scott Minto (SMBA ’06) for an episode of the Sports MBA podcast.  

Available on iTunes, direct download, RSS, and podcast page.