Georgian Village Marks Easter With "Hard As Nails" Rugby Game

Georgians play Lelo
Winners celebrate after the annual Lelo match in the village of Shukhuti, Georgia, May 1, 2016. David Mdzinarishvili/Reuters

Georgia's western village of Shukhuti marked Orthodox Easter with a traditional full-contact game of a remarkably brutal version of rugby.

The annual event splits the north and south of the village, with men on either side competing to grab the 16 kilogram black leather ball and wrestle it away from the opposing team.

The game—known as Lelo, which means field in Georgian—has been played for centuries in the country and features the only stipulation that if a player falls, then the game is paused to let him stand up. Traditionally, the ball is blessed by a priest, consecrated with church wine and released into the crowd, who then bruise and shove each other for dominance.

A Lelo match is played annually in Shukhuti to mark Easter and the game has ties to harvest rituals in Georgia, with some myths claiming that the winners would enjoy the best yield in the fall.

One British man taking part this year told Reuters his rugby background was not quite enough preparation for the rough nature of Lelo.

"That is tough," he said after the game. "I was kind of trying to stay just on our side. I play rugby at home and I was doing some wrestling earlier with some Georgians and I thought I'd fancy a go. But that is hard as nails."

Following the game, the victors dedicated it to their close friend, Otar Imnaishvili, who died in the 2015 match, carrying the ball to his grave nearby.