Exclusive: Georgia head coach Milton Haig discusses his side’s unbeaten tour of the Pacific Islands, and waiting for a Six Nations opportunity.
Whilst the Tier One nations dominated the headlines last month, Georgia were making some of their own. No team has completed an unbeaten three-Test tour of the Pacific Islands since Wales in 1986. Well, until now.
A 19-19 draw with Samoa was followed by defeating Tonga 20-23 to set up a historical meeting with Fiji. What’s the best way to motivate your players, if they need any motivation at all, for such an important game? Paint them a picture.
“We told the players; ‘Imagine how good your summer will be lying on the beach thinking about having left Fiji undefeated,'” Haig explains.
“I showed them Fiji’s front-line stats like tackle completion and set-piece and then I showed them ours, and we were better in defence. It’s black and white, and once you show them they start to believe, and when that happens you can create something special.”
And Georgia did win, by a convincing 14-3 scoreline. The feel-good factor surrounding Georgian rugby is at an all-time high after not only the Pacific Island tour, but following on from their Rugby World Cup success and yet another European Nations Cup title.
Back to last year, and World Cup wins over Tonga and Namibia ensured that Georgia finished third in Pool C, guaranteeing them automatic qualification for the 2019 tournament.
Five months later and having already won the European Nations Cup for a fifth straight year, Georgia thrashed Romania 38-9 in front of a crowd of 53,400 in Tbilisi. This is no flash in the pan success. It’s the result of Haig and his staff’s planning since he took over in 2011. And that was how Haig felt a few weeks later, speaking from his family holiday in Italy.
“Having had a couple of weeks to think about it and reflect, I suppose what comes to mind firstly is that it was the end result of four and a half years of hard work,” he told Planet Rugby.
“We ended up achieving what we wanted to achieve at the Rugby World Cup by getting automatic qualification, and we sort of springboarded off that a bit with our European Nations Cup performance.
“When I spoke to World Rugby about trying to strengthen our Test windows, really the only opportunity we had was to go to the Pacific and we were positive about that – it would be a great, tough challenge for us to play those three teams and something that would really test us. But I thought if we prepared well our confidence from the ENC and World Cup would mean we would be OK.
“We got down there eight days prior to the first game and it took us 42 hours to get there. We could have probably won against Samoa, but we just weren’t quite good enough. I always knew that if the tour was going to go well then the Tonga game was going to be really important for us, and winning that game was the make or break of the tour. We were lucky to come through with it at the end and guts’d it out. Two years ago we wouldn’t have won that game. We would have coughed the ball up, not had the patience and not got the result.
“That’s the difference between this squad now and two years ago – they have more confidence in their own ability. That victory gave us massive confidence before facing Fiji. We said to the guys in the week: “Imagine what it would feel like to leave this island undefeated.”
“It’s like anything, you give the guys a picture or something to hold onto and work hard for and that’s what helps you create history. I was really pleased because if you look at our stats and numbers, we were probably attacking-wise through our structures creating more opportunities than the Fijians did. It’s a massive advancement for us as a team and a rugby-playing country.
“A good tour for us to be honest was two wins. Did it surpass expectations? Absolutely. But it’s nice to do that. For 2015 we had a goal we knew we needed to work really hard for. At the moment we’re lucky that we’ve been able to continue that momentum and with a bit of hard work come November who knows what we can achieve then as well.”
To get to this point has required an overhaul in how Georgia approach the game. Famed for their set-piece and power, relying on those strengths in Haig’s mind was actually setting the national side back.
Taking his experiences from coaching back in his native New Zealand, which include three years in charge of Counties Manukau and as an assistant with the New Zealand U20s, Maori and also the Chiefs, Haig set about ensuring that those young players coming through the system not only practiced their skills extensively, but learned how to execute them under pressure.
“Once I took over I looked at previous Rugby World Cups and saw a big forward pack, very set-piece orientated, but also very one-dimensional in how they played. We realised pretty quickly that if we were going to challenge good teams in the future then we had to have a more width,” he added, setting out the long-term vision he had for the side.
“That was the process four to five years ago and it’s developed and developed, with young guys coming through who use the ball. It’s a style the Georgians actually like, because they are big boys who can run with the ball and know how to pass. It was just a matter of giving them the confidence that they can keep doing that under pressure. What they had always done previously I think is revert back to that previous style, the forward power game, which when you play the Pacific Islands and Japan, you can’t afford to do.
“Your fundamentals of catching and passing under pressure, you have to keep repeating them. We’re an international side, not a club side, so we’re only together a maximum of 13 weeks a year.
“It’s an old adage that Graham Henry used to say – keeping a core of players over a four to eight year period is actually pretty fundamental for an international team. We made some personnel changes when we first came in and picked out the boys who would take us through to the World Cup and then every time they come back to training, they understand the way we play and train as a side.
“We do a lot of technical understanding work so our decision making is better and on establishing default attack and defence systems that we can go back to under pressure. They’re fairly simple and everyone understands them, so that when everyone does come back it takes maybe one training run and we’re back in the groove. That’s really important, because you don’t get the time to coach stuff at international level and you have to work it through over the years.
“We’re lucky that we have another core group through to 2019 who will understand what we do. We’re only starting to see the benefits of what we implemented three-four years ago now, and that’s pleasing.”
Now, after all the hard work, comes the fun part. Vasil Lobzhanidze, the youngest player at last year’s Rugby World Cup, is leading the way for the next wave of Georgian stars, in a time which Haig describes as “hugely exciting.” A large part of that enthusiasm of course stems from the efforts of the U20 side at the recent World Rugby U20 Championship in Manchester. Georgia finished 10th, guaranteeing their participation in next year’s tournament in Tbilisi crucially on merit, rather than by virtue of being the hosts.
Haig adds: “There are four to five U20 players in fact who have already played for the national team and they’re good enough to as well, plus another couple of props that we discovered at the U20s. For us in our development, we’re in a really nice space. You have to keep bringing people through and it takes a lot of work from a coaching point of view, but if you keep the program in line with what we need in terms of succession plans for certain positions, then it all melds nicely together.
“I’m not doing anything different than I would have done back in New Zealand, I’m just doing it with Georgia and it’s working very well for us and long may that continue.
“As I said to the U20 coach, who was previously my assistant, your programme is just as important as the national team’s. Making sure we qualify for the next U20s on merit was vital for us because it gave us our own credibility that our programmes are working, and that we deserve to be there rather than just being hosts. Our guys were a little bit overawed by the New Zealand game and the coach said we didn’t prepare well for that, but I thought their other matches aside from the Ireland game were very competitive.
“If you look at some of our U20s stats compared to the big teams, statistically we stacked up. It’s a matter of keeping our composure and allowing our younger guys to learn to handle the pressure.”
Factor in all of the above and it’s easier to understand why calls for Georgia to participate in the Six Nations, or at least be given a chance to prove themselves, have grown increasingly louder over the last year.
Breaking through the red tape is another matter. But if the words this week of Gerald Davies are anything to go by, then at least those at the top are starting to listen.
For Haig, it doesn’t matter how they get there – be it via a play-off against the bottom placed side or automatic promotion/relegation. He just wants Georgia to get a chance to prove they belong at the top the European international game. For opposition players and supporters, Haig also guarantees that visiting the Georgian capital would be some experience.
“We just want to get in there. Honestly, if we had a play-off where we played the bottom of the Six Nations, obviously we’d take that because it’s a good start for us. If we’re good enough, we will win and get in. All we want to do is to have that chance. If we’re not good enough, we’re not good enough and we’ll be the first to put our hands up and say ‘sorry guys, maybe in another few years.’
“The reality though is give us an opportunity, because we think we’re ready for it. Whether that transpires to being good enough to get in, who knows, but we’re ready for the chance.
“It’s become more tangible, certainly because of the results in the last year or so. It is a topic that is being discussed more by the powers that be who make these decisions, I’m sure of that. Whether it transpires to anything solid I’m less sure, but I expect because of what we’ve achieved it’s being talked about.
“The atmosphere here at a game is special. We had 54,000 at the Romania game even after we’d won the ENC when there was nothing riding on it. To have a big Six Nations game in Tbilisi, you could probably sell it two times, three times over. Teams coming over here would enjoy it, the hospitality of the Georgian people is renowned, and we think they’d enjoy the city of Tbilisi as well. Hopefully that will all be part of the selling process if we ever get to that stage of being included – that Tbilisi can be a destination similar to Rome or Paris.”
Haig understandably hopes to be around to see it happen. His contract runs until 2019, for two years now with an option of a further two years after 2017 if both parties are happy.
There has been no shortage of speculation this year surrounding the future of New Zealand coaches based in Europe – Joe Schmidt, Vern Cotter, even Warren Gatland – and when they will decide to return home.
Haig’s success should arguably mean he too is part of that list of coaches in the running potentially for roles in Super Rugby, but there’s little chance of that happening. His wife he explains – “the boss” – loves Europe.
That might mean a role in one of Europe’s top leagues after 2019 but for now all the focus is on Georgia; and rightly so. With the foundations in place, the excitement levels when it comes to what’s next for the Lelos are rising. And quickly too.
“Now we’re at the enjoyment stage. We’ve embedded all the hard stuff, all the systems are in place. Now it’s about the smaller things, the details, which I think is exciting. Being a coach in that position, it’s a really neat time to do my job.”