Milton Haig has spent three years preaching the rugby gospel in Georgia in his role as the national team’s head coach, but the Kiwi will find it hard to top the influence he has had on the Irish game’s improving fortunes.
See, it was Haig who gave Joe Schmidt his big break. Well, sort of. The man himself doesn’t put it so dramatically, but it was his departure from Bay of Plenty that allowed the current Ireland coach grab a hold of the professional coaching ladder.
Schmidt made his name as a coach working alongside current Scotland boss man Vern Cotter at Bay of Plenty and Clermont Auvergne, but Haig was Cotter’s wing man until his career in newspapers forced him to up sticks.
Neither Cotter nor Haig had too many ideas on who should step into the breach, but a young deputy principal from Tauranga High had given their players a coaching session earlier in the year and left something of an impression.
“When he came in and did a session for our boys, that was 2002, he was smart,” said Haig of Schmidt in Dublin yesterday. “He had a really good way about his coaching style. He used questions a lot, which was good. Technically very good.”
Haig’s path has followed an even more circuitous route towards this Sunday’s meeting of Ireland and Georgia than that of Schmidt following spells at Counties Manukau, New Zealand U21s, New Zealand Maoris and now this.
Georgia came about thanks to some work he did with the ‘Lelos’ in and around the 2011 Rugby World Cup and when the Eastern Europeans decided they wanted a Kiwi as their next head coach he was in the box seat.
He has done it the right way, moving his family lock, stock and barrel to Tbilisi and learning the language as the country looks to build on encouraging showings in the last two World Cups where Ireland and Scotland were very nearly burned.
Georgia will have to face Ireland without a host of their best players, among them Toulon flanker Mamuka Gorgodze (knee) and Clermont Auvergne prop Davit Zirakashvili (concussion). Zirakashvili’s issue has been ongoing for three weeks now, but Haig is quick to counter when asked if, like past Polynesian players in the UK and France, some of the Georgians are maybe ‘persuaded’ not to report for international duties.
“The difference between our guys and the Poly boys is that these boys really want to play for the country — and I’m not saying that the other guys don’t, but these guys will walk over coals to play for their country.
“The players have got a lot of influence on whether they are going to come or not.”
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