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Georgia craving more T1 Tests

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'The thinking from some people who run the game is a bit blurred - they say certain things, but their actions are different'

At the end of the World Cup, Milton Haig and his family will bid farewell to their Georgian haven, a place and a people they have come to adore, leaving behind a rugby nation in rude health.

A canny New Zealander, Haig has been in charge in Tbilisi for seven years. On his watch, with the financial muscle of billionaire donor Bidzina Ivanishvili behind him, rugby in Georgia has rocketed. 

They have a vast training facility to rival any in the global game, a large and vociferous following, title after title in the second-tier European championship, and Graham Rowntree, the former England and Lions forwards specialist, looking after what is an already ferocious set-piece.

But some things haven’t changed. Since the last World Cup, Georgia have played four games against tier one opposition. In the previous World Cup cycle, they had two. They will get a couple of precious cracks at Scotland in this year’s pre-tournament warm-up Tests, but it is still a meagre return. 

Over the next dozen years, World Rugby has committed to upping the number of tier one matches for the game’s burgeoning nations and how Georgia need them. They have won eight of the past nine Rugby Europe Championships and are too big a fish for the second-tier pond.

Milton Haig waves

Georgia’s head coach Milton Haig waves to supporters in Tbilisi (Photo by Levan Verdzeuli/Getty Images)

They crave an opportunity to swim with the sharks of the Six Nations, but the tournament organisers are loath to tamper with a cherished and highly lucrative operation. The door remains shut and so Georgia are stuck, at serious risk of stagnating.

“It’s a huge worry for us and has been since the last World Cup,” said Haig to RugbyPass. “That’s why I have been happy to talk to anyone about getting a franchise team in a competition, about getting increased competition.

“If I can’t get more tier one Tests, I need to get my players into better competitions. We have got players in the Top 14 and that’s okay, but we need to get more players playing at a higher level more consistently, so they understand how to deliver week in, week out and to increase skill sets.

Georgia rugby

Tbilisi has become a fortress for the Georgian national team (Photo by Levan Verdzeuli/Getty Images)

“We haven’t heard anything about that. But you get to a ceiling and until you can break through it, it is pretty hard to keep improving. That’s where we’re at.”

What Haig is hinting heavily at is a slot in the evolving PRO14. Here, expansion is embraced. Two South African sides joined the party in 2017 and there is the talk of more following. 

A Georgian franchise, with all its best talent enrolled, backed by Ivanishvili and a feverish fanbase, could prosper just as Argentina’s Jaguares have in Super Rugby. “We absolutely could be competitive,” Haig insisted.

“The PRO14 is a natural fit for us because it’s northern hemisphere-based, and the time zones don’t change that much. The first step for us would be a franchise team in the PRO14.

“Then, because you are in with the Welsh, Scottish, Irish and Italian teams, that is where you start developing your relationships to break down barriers to get into the Six Nations. That’s an obvious and necessary step we need to take.”

In among all the frustrations that come from slogging fruitlessly for a seat at the top table, there is also a concern. Haig worked in advertising and design before becoming a full-time coach and he knows rugby must be commercially viable. 

But there is a worry at what is being said and done by those in power. An alarm that while the game needs investment to secure its future, it cannot chase revenue at the expense of the spirit upon which it was built. 

“I absolutely understand that the commercial viability of the game is important because if we don’t have the money, we can’t do some of the things we want to do,” he agreed.

“When I grew up, the one thing that was different from some of the other sports was the values of rugby, the way we actually think about the game. You could battle on the field as much you liked, but when you came off the field, you shook hands, you had a beer, you had a bit of a chat and something to eat, and went your separate ways with your team.

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“Some of the values that we have been brought up with, and that everybody holds dear, some of the thinking from the people who are running the game now is not that at all. It’s gone into a business model.

“I absolutely understand the commercial value, but one of the reasons why people love being involved in the game is that it included everybody. It didn’t matter who you were, you could put on boots and play. It doesn’t matter what country you’re from, if you can add value, you can add value.

“I just think the thinking from some of the people who run the game is a bit blurred – they say certain things, but their actions are different.”

The hope for Haig is that come the serious stuff in Japan, his players can deliver a show so irrepressible that the governing bodies feel compelled to extend an invitation.

In practice, that will be fiendishly difficult. Georgia should make light work of Uruguay in Pool D, but they have been drawn alongside Grand Slam winners Wales, an Australian team that just stuck 47 points on New Zealand, and the majestic talents of Fiji, who will have had the rare and dangerous luxury of access to all of their players for several months of preparation.

“We will surprise a few people,” Haig claimed. “You look at all the websites and who they’re talking about, they’re not talking about Georgia. We don’t mind that at all. We were credible at the last World Cup, finishing third in our pool, and we want to improve on that this year in terms of our credibility. 

“If we can do that, then definitely it starts more conversations around our consistency because that is what people are looking for. They are looking for our consistency to perform on a big stage regularly and create an upset.

“If we can do that, then definitely, that will convince people, that ’S***, we need to reconsider where Georgia are at’.

“What that also does is put World Rugby in a position to be able to talk to others about including Georgia in this competition in that competition. And hopefully, we can get a bit more of a share of tier one Tests from 2020 onwards.”

If they are going to shake up the rugby world, they will need more than a monster pack. The perception of Georgian rugby still depicts an impossibly large eight of France-based warriors without a great deal outside them.

“When I joined, I said the same thing – quite a good team, big forward pack but pretty one-dimensional. We always knew we would need to change that to contest some of the bigger teams. You’ve got to be able to use the ball well as well as have a good set-piece.

“I remember saying to myself after the last World Cup that if I didn’t have better X-factor on the wings going into the next World Cup then I’d shoot myself – and I’m happy to say I’m not going to have to do that!

“We’ve got some reasonably good young talent on the outsides, something we have been really working hard on over the last four years, so I didn’t have to shoot myself.”

Spearheading the new crop of backline talent is 20-year-old fly-half Tedo Abzhandadze, a play-maker bound for Brive who Haig previously said had the potential to be “world-class”.

“He made his debut in November last year and it was like this kid had played 10 Test matches already. That’s how natural he was.

Tedo Abzhandadze celebration

Georgia’s Tedo Abzhandadze celebrates with a team-mate after scoring a try during their Under-20 World Cup pool win over Scotland in Rosario (Photo by Marcelo Endelli/Getty Images)

“He’s played every Test since – for a 20-year-old, that’s not too bad. He’s got a real read for the game, feels the game very well, tactically clever, he’s a very good attacker and defender.

“He’s got a huge future, probably the most natural 10 that I’ve been involved with for a long time, and that includes some of the New Zealanders I’ve coached.”

When the great show is over, Haig will take his leave, returning to Japan where he has signed a contract with Suntory Sungoliath that begins in November. The move has been kept relatively quiet – in part so as not to have any effect on Georgia’s preparations. 

Haig has given his boys a “thrashing” in early pre-season and is now fine-tuning in the gleaming surrounds of the Gloria Sports Arena Turkey’s southern coast. The facilities are phenomenal – Warren Gatland will take Wales there later this month.

These are vital but poignant moments. Haig’s legacy is assured, but how dearly he would love to bow out wielding a scalp. “Regardless of what happens at the World Cup, I’ve left the place better than it was when I first arrived in leaps and bounds.

“What we are now as opposed to what we were in 2012 is so different. I’ve had a hand in that and I’m happy about that.

“But you’re always trying to make sure you’re optimising opportunities and I see the World Cup as a massive opportunity. With it being my last tournament with the team, I’ve got more motivation than anyone else to say, ‘Right, I’m not going to waste this opportunity, I’m going to do everything possible’.”

WATCH: Part one of Operation Jaypan, the two-part RugbyPass documentary on what the travelling fans can expect to experience at the World Cup in Japan

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'The thinking from some people who run the game is a bit blurred - they say certain things, but their actions are different'