Should Georgia beat Scotland on Saturday then Vern Cotter will only have himself to blame. When scratching around for a replacement for Richie Dixon after the 2011 World Cup the Georgian Rugby bosses came across Milton Haig’s CV and immediately telephoned one of his references. Cotter evidently gave his pal the thumbs up.
Haig was the original have-boots-will-travel player at the tail end of the amateur era, turning out for the Pirates in South Africa, London Scottish and countless others before he fetched up as player/coach of Preston Lodge in Edinburgh. He might even have stayed in Scotland but couldn’t get the right work visa so he headed back home to New Zealand.
Now Haig is back with a point to prove and his team have just one weapon with which to make it. If Georgia don’t boast the best set scrum in world rugby then heaven help any side that has to face the top dogs.
In beating Samoa last Saturday by 20-16 Georgia scored two tries. The first was a penalty try from a five metres scrum, the second a pushover try from a five metres scrum. You may have noted a theme developing here.
The islanders fielded what appeared to be a strong scrum including the veteran Bristol prop Anthony Perenise and the 130kgs bulldozer that is Leicester’s Lolo Munipola, not players that are easy to push around, but the set piece was no utterly one sided. So do Georgia have, I put the question to Haig, the best set scrum in the world? “Mmmmm,” he mulls the question for a while before answering. “Well, I’d be biased if I said that we did. Obviously we are in the top three, there is no doubt about that, and we are very proud about that.
“We know you get on average about 12 scrums a game but we also know that there are a lot of other things you have to do in a game like tackle, ruck, catch and pass the ball and you spend more time doing that than you do scrummaging. But we have a pretty good weapon and we want to use it when we can.
“It’s part of our game that we take a lot of pride on and it is known well throughout the world of rugby in that it has always been a big part of the Georgian game and it will continue to be a big part of the Georgian game, it’s part of our DNA.”
And Georgia are presumably aware that Scotland are fielding two young, inexperienced props? “Scotland have a couple of inexperienced props,” Haig argues, “but they played pretty well against Australia and Argentina. It would be an area that we would look to put pressure on. But we need to look at the rest of the team, it’s quite experienced, they have both Gray brothers, a combative breakaway trio and a back line that is pretty settled, Mark Bennett in the midfield and Stuart Hogg at the back so they have lots of areas where they can get into the game.
“But we will start by putting pressure on their scrum and if we get a bit of success in that area then we will look to use it as much as we can.”
While some of Haig’s squad are world class players at world class clubs, others like full-back Merab Kvirikashvili have to make the step up from the lower leagues, with his Montlucon team in France’s Federale 1; something that comes with the territory according to the coach.
Haig has made just one personnel change from the Georgian XV that scalped Samoa. The 20-year-old centre Giori Koshadze took a bang to the head and misses out on the Scotland match. Instead the No 12 shuffles to 13 and the winger Tamaz Mchedlidze moves to inside centre while Giorgi Aptsiauri starts at 14; all of which suggests that Haig doesn’t have a huge number of options when he is shuffling the deck.
“We are a pretty stable side, the same side has started in the last 12 to 18 months really so we have some continuity going,” says the Kiwi. “We rely on our most experienced players for the big matches and this is obviously a big match for us.”
For more than one reason, he could have added. First up there is the important ranking points that come with any international, and Georgia are now up to 12th place, one better than Italy. There is also the small matter of the annual Six Nations knees-up, for which the Georgians are still quietly hoping to blag an invitation.
“I think the Six Nations is something that the coaches and administrators think about,” says Haig. “I don’t think the players worry about that or focus on it because the main thing they have to focus on is their performance on Saturday.
“But there is a residue [result] of a good performance on Saturday and this is what I remind them,” he added. “The residue of a good performance is that it starts to initiate conversations that need to happen if we hope to be part of an expanded Six Nations.”