15,559 kilometres away from Southland is perhaps the last place you’d expect to find a New Zealand rugby coach.
In fact with that amount of distance between Milton Haig and his home town of Invercargill, it would almost be a place you’d go to simply to escape the glare and focus of the sport that dominates the psyche of nearly every Kiwi.
Haig, however, is that far away from home for a reason. And that reason has very much helped an emerging rugby power stamp its authority on the sport and lay the foundation for what could be a potential future rugby powerhouse.
That distance sees Haig in Tbilisi, the capital of former Soviet country Georgia. It is here where he has resided for the last eight years since being appointed head coach of the Georgian National Rugby Team.
The former Invercargill native landed the position after Georgian officials sought the appointment of a New Zealand coach during their time in the country in the 2011 Rugby World Cup. Haig at the time had a successful run as coach of Counties Manukau in the Mitre 10 Cup and was approached by New Zealand Rugby about the position.
“They came to me and said ‘we think you’re the guy who can do it actually’. I went home and asked my wife and she said ‘yup’ and said ‘let’s go’…she said ‘our kids are old enough so let’s go give them an experience’. Nearly eight years later we’re still here.”
And while a simple appointment as coach of a national team might seem like a dream for many aspiring coaches, Haig had no idea of exactly what he was walking into when he accepted the position.
“I hadn’t heard much of them. I had watched them at the World Cup even before I was approached… they were big boys but quite predictable about how they played… I went back and looked at footage and looked through all of their World Cup games and thought ‘it actually won’t take too much to get these guys better’.”
Haig said on arrival in Tbilisi he was astounded at the facilities that were available to him. A state of the art training facility featuring a 27room hotel, three fields, swimming pools and a variety of other amenities that he had never seen before in New Zealand.
He said former Georgia Prime Minister and billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili had invested millions of dollars into the sport by bringing in new facilities and programmes after the exposure it had received with the country’s qualification to the 2003 and 2007 World Cups.
“When I first came they had this one facility… now in the eight years he has built another 12 facilities throughout the country… without him there was no way that we would have been able to move as quickly as we have.”
Haig said that rugby had overtaken soccer as the number one sport in Georgia and it continued to grow thanks to their frequent success in the annual Rugby Europe Championship as well as their successful run at the 2015 World Cup.
Georgia defeated both Tonga and Namibia during the 2015 tournament, which helped them secure automatic qualification for the 2019 World Cup.
It was the first time they had ever achieved automatic qualification.
“If you’re going to create history or do something that special, you had to do something that you had never done before. We trained hard. We were fitter than normal. It worked out for us.”
For the 2019 World Cup in Japan, Haig said their goal remained the same, and they hoped to secure two wins out of pool D in which Georgia will face Australia, Wales, Fiji and Uruguay.
Haig hoped that the continued rise of Georgia in the sport would see it included in the prestigious Six Nations tournament before the next World Cup in 2023, adding that increased exposure to tier 1 teams would allow them greater success moving forward.
However, it will be a journey that Haig will not be part of, having announced that the World Cup in Japan next month will be the last time he coaches Georgia.
“After the World Cup I’ve already signed a contract in Japan to go to a club called Suntory… it’s not widely known but that’s the plan anyway.”
He said he was looking forward to the new opportunity, as well as the chances it will bring his wife and two daughters with new cultures and experiences for them.
And with the pressures of world rugby constantly consuming his life, Haig admits the one place that relaxes him the most is right in the very place he came from: Southland.
He said he attempts to come back to New Zealand every two years where he usually stays with his family in Riverton.
“The thing I absolutely miss is just the fresh air… I lie on my brother’s back lawn and just breathe the air because it’s just absolutely so crisp and clean. The other thing that we really really miss is the ocean… so I walk every morning down on the beach.”
This article was originally written for The Advocate South. You can read the published version via The Southland App