Rugby-Exotic outsiders dream of upsetting the big boys

By Mark Trevelyan GLOUCESTER, England, Sept 19 (Reuters) - It would make a good pub quiz question: if the 'Ikale Tahi are scrumming down against the Lelos, which two teams are in action at the 2015 Rugby World Cup? On the face of it, Tonga versus Georgia is one of the more obscure of the 48 fixtures in a tournament whose top crowd draws are the likes of the All Blacks and Springboks. But the clash between the Polynesian island kingdom (population just over 100,000) and the former Soviet republic of 4.9 million people brings a touch of the exotic to the cool autumnal setting of Gloucester's Kingsholm Stadium in southwest England. The 'Ikale Tahi or Sea Eagles are competing at their seventh Rugby World Cup and have shown they can spring surprises -- at the last tournament they stunned eventual runners-up France with a 19-14 victory. Their pre-game ritual, a war dance called the Sipi Tau, is comparable to the All Blacks' haka. "The Sipi Tau is a really important part of our culture and our rugby team, and we believe that, according to our ancestors, God gives us strength," captain Nili Latu explained on the eve of the match. Georgia, where the sport has really taken off in the quarter-century since the collapse of the Soviet Union, take their nickname from an ancient full-contact ball sport, played between villages, that involved something similar to mauling. Lelo rhymes with 'fellow', and more importantly with Georgians' name for their own country, Sakartvelo: hence the supporters' chant "Lelo, lelo, Sakartvelo" (Try, try, Georgia). The team, especially their captain Mamuka Gorgodze, have become national heroes, and not only on the rugby field. Some of the players sprang into action in June to help in the clear-up operation after floods inundated the capital Tbilisi, causing widespread damage and enabling tigers, lions, bears and wolves to escape from the city zoo. "Georgia is breathing and living rugby," said Lutyon Aryrevo, a passionate supporter who is following Saturday's match on TV in Tbilisi and has plastered his Facebook page with pictures of the team. "Many of my friends told me they couldn't sleep last night and it's the same with me." Neither Tonga nor Georgia has much chance of progressing past the pool stage in a group that is likely to be dominated by New Zealand and Argentina. But for neutrals, the idea of a rank outsider pulling off a shock result in the tournament has clear romantic appeal. "It would be boring if there were only the super-teams," said Jan Taubel, a fan who had travelled by camper van from Prague to watch Saturday's game with his son and three grandchildren -- even though the Czech Republic is not even taking part. "They can surprise -- you can never say it won't happen." For both Georgia and Tonga, the World Cup offers a rare chance to compete on sport's global stage -- and maybe, just maybe, to upset the odds and bring drama as well as colour to set the competition alight. (Reporting by Mark Trevelyan; Editing by John Geddie)