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Murrayfield Snub Will Motivate Ambitious Georgia, says Kiwi Coach Haig

Georgia head coach Milton Haig has claimed that the SRU’s decision to stage the forthcoming autumn test at Kilmarnock’s Rugby Park, rather than Murrayfield, will motivate his players to prove they are worthy of a bigger stage.

“To some degree, it’s disrespectful”, said Haig, who had hoped to take on close friend Vern Cotter’s Scotland at the Scottish rugby’s traditional home in Edinburgh on November 26.

The SRU’s rationale for staging the tie in Ayrshire was twofold. First, the visit of Georgia was not likely to attract a crowd of anywhere near Murrayfield’s 67,000 capacity and, second, the authorities sought to take an international fixture to a venue outside the capital as they have done several times in recent years.

In July, when Kilmarnock was announced as the venue for the Georgia clash, an official statement read: “Scottish Rugby continues to take international rugby across the country in a bid to grow the sport and we hope taking our national team to Ayrshire will inspire a new audience as a means to increasing interest and participation in grassroots rugby.”

Regardless of the factors behind the venue choice, Haig claimed “it could be a decision that comes back to bite them.”

“I was a bit miffed as Vern and I would both have loved to play at Murrayfield. Having lived here before, and having Scottish heritage, and having watched the All Blacks play there growing up, it would have been something special to play there,” stated the Georgia head coach who worked as a teacher in East Lothian for a year in the early 1990s.

Indeed, the New Zealander would have stayed in Scotland longer had he not been denied a work permit despite having been selected by Jim Telfer for a development position with the SRU in 1994.

Haig recalls: “I was up against former Scotland internationals and Jim (Telfer) had told me that only a Scot would get that job, but he changed his mind after the interview. It was upsetting at the time when the Home Office didn’t grant me the permit. Jim sent me a wonderful note afterwards though and I hope he’ll be at the match at Kilmarnock.”

Georgia, ranked 11th in the world, could break into the top ten before the year is out and Haig believes this November “could be the most important window we’ve ever had.”

Playing in Europe’s second tier competition, the newly renamed Rugby Europe International Championships, Georgia have emerged unquestionably as Europe’s best team outside the Six Nations, winning the tournament in each of the last six years and have already qualified for the 2019 World Cup. They harbor ambitions of being welcomed into the Six Nations one day as well, but genuine encouragement from the organizers has been in short supply.

Faced with some indifference in Europe, Georgia have had to test themselves elsewhere and this summer they emerged from a tour of the South Pacific with an impressive unbeaten record, defeating Fiji and Tonga while drawing with Samoa.

“The World Cup last year and the success we achieved on tour in the Pacific earlier this year were great, but going into the top ten would be us breaking barriers. At the start of this year, one of the goals we set was to reach the top ten so we’ll do all we can to make that a reality,” adds the Kiwi who lives in the Georgian capital Tbilisi permanently with his wife, a head teacher at an international school, and two daughters, both of whom speak Georgian fluently.

“After the World Cup (where Georgia won two games for the first time in their history), we had to ask ourselves what comes next. It was vital that we strived for continuous improvement and that’s been visible with the record winning margin over Romania in March and the unbeaten tour in the Pacific,” noted Haig.

Accordingly, Haig sees the Scotland clash as a chance to turn a few heads in the northern hemisphere: “Putting in solid performances against the top teams can change the perceptions of both the rugby public and the decision makers. It is a chance for us to prove something, a great opportunity but it’s what we do with that opportunity that matters.”

While Cotter will be his adversary for 80 minutes in Ayrshire, Haig is looking forward to having his fellow countryman on his side when next summer he moves to French club Montpellier where several of the Georgian squad play.

“I am not sure if Vern leaving Scotland was a mutual decision. In any case, the south of France is not a bad place to be going, and he’ll have six of our lads in his squad so Georgia will benefit from having several of the team getting top class coaching at club level.”

The relationship between them is one that Haig describes as brotherly, with Cotter the elder of the two. Only once before have they coached against each other, in a friendly in New Zealand in which Cotter’s side prevailed, a score Haig is keen to settle.

“They are a perennial top ten side so to play Scotland in Scotland is historic for us, and it will be a massive occasion. They were one referee’s decision away from the semi-finals of the World Cup and they had some good performances in this year’s Six Nations. We have to embrace the occasion.”

For the New Zealander leading Georgia to uncharted heights in world rugby, the sources of motivation to overcome the Scots in their backyard this autumn are abundant.

Alastair Watt

03 November 2016 20:00