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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Georgians Recall Russian Ties After Rugby Victory

TRABZON, Turkey — Georgia's rugby team stood holding candles before a priest Saturday to receive words of encouragement all too similar to those issued during the country's short 2008 war — beat Russia.

The teams met Saturday in a European Cup qualifier played in Trabzon, Turkey — neutral territory to limit security risks.

Georgia ran out 36-8 winners, but behind the chest beating before and after the game, the confrontation offered a glimpse into the ties that still bond the former Soviet neighbors.

"In a rugby game you can see brother playing against brother. Politics will always highlight those divisions, but you wait and you see that after the game they are still brothers," said the team's towering vice captain, Ilia Zedginidze, 33.

Tensions still simmer some 18 months after Russia crushed an assault by Georgia on the rebel region of South Ossetia in a five-day war that humiliated the Georgian army.

Georgians are suffering under a de facto trade embargo on their products, visa restrictions and closed travel links. Many say they simply want normality to return after generations of shared history between the Orthodox Christian nations. Many Georgians live and work in Russia; many Russians live in Georgia.

The country's political opposition, though split, is trying to gain traction by offering the hope of a renewal of relations with Moscow, something President Mikheil Saakashvili appears unable to do.

"We respect the Russians. They are no different from us," said Merab Khunjgurua, 36, who works for a copper exporting company. "Flowers are blooming now, and memories of the war will fade. Things are returning to normal. I can't understand why our relations cannot as well."

On Saturday, buses packed with Georgians flooded the Black Sea town of Trabzon, just across the frontier, after 5,800 tickets allocated to Georgia were sold out in a matter of hours. Rugby is popular in the country of 4.5 million people.

The Russian section of the stadium was practically empty.

Vladislav Korshunov, Russia's rugby team captain, saw no spirit of score settling on either side.

"Today's game had nothing to do with politics. … We played a more experienced team than we are. That's all," he said.

Spectators waved Georgian and NATO flags. Saakashvili's wife, Sandra, was among the fans.

If the 2008 war was a mismatch of David and Goliath proportions, the rugby confrontation was more evenly matched.

The victorious Georgians left the field dressing cut brows and knees. In the capital, Tbilisi, cars tore down streets honking horns and streaming flags from the windows.

But for some fans the game brought back anger.

"If the Georgians had even started to lose, I would have jumped down on the field myself and joined the scrum," said David Shvelidze, a Tbilisi banker. "After what they did to us, this is an important matter of pride."