Rainy night in Georgia
Steve Hansen will be far from the only Kiwi coach at the Rugby World Cup. The Magazine introduces a new series profiling the other Kiwis in charge, starting with a Maori boy from Invercargill who has Georgia on his mind.
They came as a braided stream, filling the stadium. Their faces painted in the red and white of the Georgian flag. There is vodka on their breath. Cigarette smoke drifts up like a faint mist in the November gloaming. They’ve come to watch scrummage and maul, ruck and line-out, attack and counter-attack.
The peanut guy is doing the rounds, flinging packets into mitts all stretching out hyper-speed. Snare drums rattle. Michael Jackson blares. Mikheil Meskhi Stadium’s lights are aglitter. Snow-capped ranges fringing the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, roll away in the distance.
Players run out into a bowl of light and the crowd is noise and bustle and rallying cries. The referee’s whistle blows. A Japanese journalist in the press box – all folders of players and stats, binocular and Dictaphone – she clicks her stop-watch as a little oval ball flies up from half-way, drifting.
Within 90 seconds a player has been crushed, wobbling his way from the pitch in a haze.
Japan versus Georgia. Tier-two international rugby at its finest.
Milton Haig’s wife is calling him. He’s sat in the dining area of the Georgian national rugby team’s headquarters on the fringes of Tbilisi.
The team he coaches is wolfing down chicken, potatoes, cauliflower and salad.
“My wife just told me,” Haig tells Sky Sport: The Magazine. “She just saw the Japanese boys down at Wendy’s eating burgers.”
It’s the day before Georgia-Japan test match. The weather has packed in, big fat drops of ice-cold Caucasian rain hammering against the windows.
The players are about to head out for the captain’s run, once they’ve finished eviscerating the chicken. And by god, they’re big guys.
“They are big boys, kind of like Polynesian boys,” Haig says. “So they had a very one-dimensional style, dominated by the forwards. My job over the past 30 months was to bring the backs in.”
Haig took on the job of head coach three years ago, with support from the New Zealand Rugby Union, after four years directing Counties-Manukau.
Under his stewardship, the Georgians have notched up wins against Romania and Tonga. A week ago, they restricted Ireland to just three penalties in the first half and stayed in touch with Argentina’s Los Pumas in Tbilisi last year, losing 26-16.
“We’ve grown together over the past 30 months,” Haig says. “We’re developing a more expansive style of play. To their credit, they are very open to learning.”
That more expansive approach will prove important: they’ve qualified for the Rugby World Cup this year, having won the European Nations’ Cup in 2014.
They’re in the All Blacks pool. This means the Lelos – as the Georgian team is referred – are going to feel the full force of Sonny Bill Williams’ fends or Maa Nonu’s terrifying breaks. How do you deal with the omnipresent Richie McCaw?
“There’s nothing you can do,” Haig says, shaking his head. “From our perspective, playing the All Blacks will be the biggest moment in Georgia’s rugby history. Some of these guys used to play on concrete pitches.
“It’s not every day you get to play against the best team in the world. We will use it as a chance to learn.”
But, what if? What if the impossible happens? What if the Georgians beat the All Blacks?
“That’s not going to happen,” Haig says.
Pre-match press conference and the Japanese journalist is on the hunt. She needs fresh quotes. The sheer scale of her organizational capacities is remarkable.
“Is it okay if you talk to her for a few minutes?” Alexandre Ujmajuridze, the Georgian team’s bearded PR guru, asks Haig. “She’s been calling me.”
Sure thing, Haig says. The room is full of cameras and microphones.
“Tomorrow’s game is dedicated to the United Nations’ campaign to halt violence against women. It is always a great pleasure to support such campaigns,” Haig says. “It is important that Georgian men realise that violence against women is unacceptable. This campaign resonates with me, as a father and as a husband.”
Haig, media-savvy, worked advertising for the APN newspaper the Wanganui Chronicle a long while – “you know, once the ink is in your blood it stays there” – before committing to Counties-Manukau in 2008.
His rugby career began in the mid-1980s, playing as a 21-year-old in South Africa with the Johannesburg Pirates, while travelling on an open-ended ticket for a year.
“South Africa was a great experience for a Maori boy from Invercargill,” he says. “Playing against Springboks.”
From 2003 through 2007, he was head coach at Wanganui. Then he moved on, in 2008, to an assistant coach role at NZ Maori.
He answers a bunch of questions in Georgian, relying on a translator only when required.
He’s been studying the language, rendered in curly script, and has pretty decent comprehension.
Pulling all the parts together – vocabulary, syntax and sound – and uttering something comprehensible is the challenge, he says. One of his daughters is already fluent. She picked it up in her gymnastics class.
“Fatherhood is the hardest job I have ever done and will continue to do. Coaching a squad of 31 men and managing 15 staff is a breeze compared to being a dad, mainly because it’s not a job we are necessarily taught and a lot of it is learn as you go – I know that is certainly my case anyway.”
“One of my goals is to talk to the boys in Georgian, before we play the All Blacks, at the World Cup,” he says. “That will be a huge moment for me.”
The Japanese journalist approaches, post-conference, her Dictaphone held aloft.
Half-time. Ice wind. Freezing cold.
But what a forty minutes of rugby!
Georgia’s burly forward pack is piling the big hurt on Japan. The team’s hooker, Shalva Mamukashvili – who recently signed to English club team Sale Sharks – opened the scoring with a 12th minute try, as a Georgian maul rolled its way across the line. Ten minutes later and they’ve been awarded a penalty try.
The crowd became a seething, deafening mass. All vodka and testosterone and guttural screams.
Japan was back in the game within minutes following a penalty and a converted try.
Japan’s towering number eight, Amanaki Lelei Mafi, broke from the back of a half-way scrum, rampaging his way some 40 meters up field before off-loading to winger Karne Hesketh.
The scoreboard begrudgingly tallied up the points, several minutes later. The crowd grew sullen, as if they were beginning to doubt their influence upon the natural course of things, to doubt whether their cries would echo through aeons.
Georgia’s leading point scorer, Merab Kvirikashvili, playing at fullback, closed out the half with a try.
Half-time score: 17-10.
Rugby is proving wildly popular in Georgia, growing rapidly. Some say that’s because the brutal nature of the game appeals to some innate fight in Caucasian blood. Others attribute rugby’s rise to the Lelos’successes.
Investors have realised the sport’s potential as the Lelos pack out stadiums, with an unnamed billionaire backing the Georgian team.
“We have a 27-room hotel, a full gymnasium, pitches. Even in New Zealand you’d struggle to find facilities like this,” says Haig. “Excellent facilities. Our big benefactor is about to build a new 30,000-seat stadium.”
New Zealanders have played a crucial role in developing the team. A half-dozen Kiwis have been involved, while Tana Umaga came out two times. A Kiwi diplomat has even been poking around. Who said rugby and politics don’t mix?
Meantime, Rugby is seen as the natural continuation of a Georgian game originating in pagan times, known as Lelo-burti. That game basically inspires village-on-village levels of violence – threatening provincial escalation – with hordes brawling over a pumpkin-sized ball.
Tbilisi is a charming city. Cobbled streets wrinkle and twist through its historic layers.
Silver and gold shops sit aside wineries and antique clothing shops; mosques and synagogues and ancient churches – reverberating with chant – dot the city, fringed as it is by wooded hills and split in two by the fast-moving waters of the Mtkvari River.
“We arrived and decided to go for a walk around the city,” Haig says. “And we’re like, ‘holy hell’. I thought, ‘what’ve we got ourselves into!’”.
Legend has it Tbilisi was founded by King Vakhtang Gorgasali – after he sent an arrow arcing clean through the blue Caucasian skies, tearing into an in-flight pheasant and sending it spiraling down towards its ruin in the bubbling sulfur springs far below; it was boiled and tasted delicious – in the 5th Century.
Since then, Tbilisi has variously been sacked by the Arabs, the Mongols and the Persians, who, in 1795, slaughtered tens of thousands of people while setting the city ablaze, reducing it to ash. A renaissance followed. The Soviets put paid to that all of that.
Now it is occupied by a Kiwi rugby coach.
“We are pretty much ensconced in a beautiful apartment overlooking the city,” Haig says. “We saw the view and that sealed it.”
Haig is driving through the city, following the captain’s run. The highest religious figure in the land is going to lead the team in mass at an iconic church in a few hours. The Georgian team is out for blood tomorrow: two years ago they lost to Japan in the closing seconds, 25-22.
“The boys are a bit uncomfortable under the high ball,” he says. “We need to work on that, because we’re going to get a bunch of that stuff at the World Cup.”
He’s talking a mile-a-minute.
Professionalism in sport: “I don’t begrudge these guys for making some money. But we need to watch out for the drinking and gambling.”
Haig is widely regarded as a rock-solid provincial coach. His time at Georgia stands him in good stead to perhaps make a move on to Europe, coaching club rugby there. Many of the Georgian players are embedded in French teams.
A solid performance at the World Cup, however, could give Haig a shot at coaching super rugby.
“Right now, the goal is really to make [the World Cup in] Japan 2019.”
Full-time. The referee has tooted away on his whistle. It’s all over. Thank Christ. Early stage hypothermia.
Georgia has had its revenge, running away with this 35-24. It was a half of scandal, with a sin-binning,the scoreboard growing increasingly belligerent and the crowd threatening insurrection following two Georgian tries being questioned, one eventually disallowed.
The Japanese journalist noted the discrepancies, exasperated and pointing to the scoreboard: “Is that the right score?”
No, it isn’t. That try was disallowed.
Regardless, Georgia’s forward pack outmuscled their opposition, crushing Japan at the scrum and break down. The Lelos put on two tries this half.
A 53rd minute try to first-five, Lasha Khmaladze, came after a nasty bounce from a clearing kick. Japan had surged into the Georgian twenty-two before losing possession. Giving chase to a thumping clearance, Khmaladze dribbled the ball across the line, gathered and scored.
Japan punched back, scoring off a quick tap.
Georgia sealed the game five minutes out from time, spreading the ball wide after another unforced Japanese error inside their twenty-two.
“It comes down to pressure,” Haig at the post-match presser says. “We practiced all week. One plus one on the tackle. We knew that if we held Japan, they would kick.”
The crowd pours out, their blood-lust sated. They wander, their collective mass breaking apart, dissolving into the night, drifting back atomic to their separate lives.