Alexander Bisley has a soft spot for the Lelos, the Georgian national rugby team. And now, thanks to a first up victory over Tonga, so does most of the rugby world. Here The Spinoff’s man-at-large at the Rugby World Cup chats to their kiwi coach Milton Haig about shovelling snow, learning the lingo, lazy bastards, and heavy drinking.
So, is rugby pretty much Georgia’s national sport now?
It’s considered by a lot of people as the national sport because it’s been the most successful team sport for ages now. Their soccer’s not that great here and it’s full of corruption. Because rugby’s got great values behind the game the Georgian people have really taken to it. It’s become really, really popular.
Your Lelos play and train in some cold, elemental weather?
My first week in Tblisi we were training in the snow. I said to the manager, “there’s a foot of snow out there”. He replied, “Oh, that won’t matter.” Next minute, there were about thirty people with shovels [laughs].
It’s cool see Kiwi coaches doing well with teams all around the world – seven of the 20 teams at RWC2015 have kiwi coaches.
We have such an understanding of the game and New Zealand Rugby does a very good job of investing in certain people. They understand that they can’t hold everybody; that sometimes it’s actually necessary to let them go, get experience overseas and hopefully then they’ll bring that overseas experience back.
Your prime examples already are Graham Henry, Shag [Steve Hansen] and Wayne Smith. That’s how you pick up your skill-sets, your understanding of different cultures. When people don’t speak your language and you’ve got to coach rugby then you’ve got to find some other skill-sets that help you get your point across.
It’s not just the big teams. Marty Davis was with Luxembourg twelve years. Then you’ve got the top end with the likes of Vern Cotter and Joe Schmidt and Warren Gatland. So we’re everywhere, because we have that innate understanding of the game. As soon as we’re born we’ve got a rugby ball in our hands, haven’t we?
Tell me about what Mareb Sharikadze, Georgia’s second-five and player of 2014, represents?
Mareb’s 22 and he’s played 30-something games for the national team. He’s the forerunner of what we want from Georgia, a back that’s smart, understands rugby well, is professional about what he’s doing – he plays in France.
We’ve always had pretty good forwards. When we looked at Georgia in 2011, they competed for a large degree with people like Scotland, Argentina and England, who were in their pool. But their game was pretty one-dimensional, forward-based and they didn’t use their backs a lot.
So the whole plan of coming here was get a bit more expansive to beat these teams. Our whole idea was to build some backs, and get some blitz in our game through our backline.
It’s about giving the boys out the back a bit of self-belief. I told them that rather than holding a teacup and having a smoke they were going to be busy now. The backs lapped it up, and said, “Glory, thank you very much”. Now they’re pretty good at it, and it’s quite exciting because our better players coming through our younger age grades are backs.
We’ve still got our traditional forward base boys coming through as well. I said, “If we’re going to beat teams like Samoa and Japan who we’ve never beaten before –we have to have a bit more to our game, boys.” We beat Samoa and Japan during the last couple of years.
I’m impressed with your Georgian language skills, Milton.
Yeah [laughs]. Look, I’ve been learning it for over two and a half years. It’s a really difficult language to learn to speak, because it’s got so many different little tongue twisters that you’ve got to get your mouth and tongue around.
It helps you within the community, gets respect. It’s good for our children to speak different languages and to listen to different languages and different cultures. It’s been tough, but I’ve got a good grasp of it now. I probably shouldn’t say that [laughs].
I understand pretty much 80 per cent of it when people are talking to me. Rugby stuff I know and I can speak it. General conversations are pretty good, but there are times when guys are speaking to me and I’ve got no idea what they’re saying at all because they’ve got a different dialect, or because they speak so fast.
So your language study is like an intense daily gym session?
It is [laughs]. Definitely! At 1.30pm everyday it’s “In you go and don’t come out for an hour.”
You’re Maori—father Ngati Porou (East Coast), mother Ngati Maniapoto (King Country)—but raised in Invercargill, with limited opportunity to learn the Reo?
I was born on the East Coast; I was just a young tacker, only six months old, when we moved to Invercargill. There weren’t too many Maori back in Invercargill in those days [laughs] – a bit too cold. Dad never brought us up in a Maori environment; it was basically a European environment that we grew up in. So he never taught us the language or anything, although he was fluent. It was a generation that lost it.
Another thing about you C.V. that interests me is you worked in the media industry?
I started off at the Bay of Plenty Times in Tauranga. A guy from the rugby club, said, “I’ve got a job as general manager at Bay of Plenty Times”. I said, “Mate, I don’t know anything about bloody newspapers apart from I used to deliver them when I was a kid in Invercargill.”
I spent nearly fourteen years there in the industry because I absolutely loved it. As somebody told me, “Once you get ink in your blood, it’ll never leave.”
Both rugby and journalism, at their best there’s a real camaraderie to them, isn’t there?
Absolutely. I get on really well with journos. It’s like, “Ok, I know what you’re looking for; I can give you some of it, but I can’t give you all of it, you know?” Some of them are lazy bastards, as with any industry… knowing that there are certain boundaries that you can’t cross from the coach’s perspective and also from the journalist’s perspective. Just respect each other and what you do. You do get pricks in both jobs. Not all coaches are good blokes, there’s some absolute arseholes that do the job. Again, it’s just a matter of having that mutual respect.
Georgia’s been so dominant in the European Nations Cup for seven years. How about the Lelos joining an expanded Seven Nations?
We’re asking them to let us in. From a rugby perspective we can add value. We mightn’t compete in the first year, but we certainly know that we’d probably be able to compete in the second and third if you give us a crack. Commercially, we know that we can’t add as much value as some of those other big countries that certainly have better financial backers than we would ever have. But if it’s money, then tell us that that’s what it is and tell us the amount. The Georgian government are very great supporters of ours and we have a couple of other big benefactors.
The Lelos aren’t going to beat the All Blacks in Cardiff are they?
We’re not afraid of any team but obviously the All Blacks are the All Blacks and that’s going to be a massive – we’re not even entertaining the notion that we’ll beat them, because to do that they’re going to have to have 10 people on the field and we’re going to have to have 20 [laughs].
But certainly we’ve got our eyes on all those remaining pool games. Our goal is to qualify automatically for Japan 2019. To do that you’re going to have to win at least two games and end up third in our pool. If we can develop some momentum, who knows what else can happen?
I heard you had to tell some of the boys to cut back on their drinking. If you qualify for Japan will you be OK with them having a few vodkas?
[laughs] If they do that, mate, that can have a bottle each, I don’t care. I’ll help them celebrate, don’t worry.
Alexander Bisley is covering the Rugby World Cup for The Spinoff and other UK-based publications.