He's a rugby nomad, a professional coach making a name for himself in a faraway place. But we won't see Milton Haig back in his homeland until his race is run. John Maslin caught up with Haig – who coached the Whanganui rep rugby team from 2002-07 - just before Christmas when he and his family made a brief stopover in their former home town of Whanganui.

There was one moment during the 2017 Rugby World Cup that will forever remain with Milton Haig.

The national anthems of his adopted homeland Georgia and real home - New Zealand - were played and as usual the All Blacks performed the haka.

Haig said the week before the game in the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff was surreal. His "boys" were going to stand before the All Blacks' haka.


Not many Kiwis have coached a team against the All Blacks but there was something else far more spiritual in this encounter for Haig. He was facing the challenge of the haka.

"Being part Maori it was a really emotional minute and-a-half. I could absolutely connect to what was happening. But being on the other side for that challenge, it was way, way different. Such an experience."

After that game the ABs invited the Georgian players and management into their changing room.

"The first thing that happened was Steve Hansen thrusting a Steinlager into my hand and saying 'Get that down ya'. It was pretty special."

Georgia was competitive for a lot of that game and that mattered. After the game Haig told TV commentator Ian Smith that it was important his team played with pride and passion and showed the world how they can play rugby.

"Smithy's last words to me were 'Mate, you've done that in spades'. That was kind of cool."

Georgia also beat Tonga in pool play to finish third in the group. More importantly it's given Haig's boys direct entry into the 2019 World Cup in Japan.

"But personally for me, that day in Cardiff was so special, and having Ang (wife Angelique) and the girls (Molly and Lily) there was extra special."

For the Georgian players he said the game was the pinnacle of their careers.

Featherston welcome for Georgia rugby team for Rugby World Cup
Featherston welcome for Georgia rugby team for Rugby World Cup

"Two years to before then we were at the qualification stage and I told them they had two choices – either win it all and qualify to play in the All Blacks pool or not worry, end up in another pool with Ireland, France and someone else. They said 'No way'. They wanted to be in the pool with the ABs and play against the best team in the world. They were hugely motivated."

Before the World Cup, Haig could walk around the national capital of Tbilisi, where he's based, and a few people would greet him. But after the tournament all that changed.

"You couldn't walk into any place without people coming up and congratulating us. It wasn't happening occasionally, it was everywhere we went. As a result the popularity of the game has just kept on going and going," he said.

When the coach and his family arrived in Georgia, rugby was in his words a "reasonably popular" game. But now it's the most popular. It's even garnered support from the Georgian government.

"The people have recognised the values of the game, the respect among players to the opposition and officials. These are big men battling on the field but off the field they share a drink with each other and have a chat. The locals haven't seen anything like that before."

Haig loves the environment he works in, the support he's getting from the rugby union and its hierarchy. But it's something he has had to earn and it's been a work in progress for the last six years.

"We've got so much more to do, so much more potential but it's a really a nice time to be doing this."

About 60 per cent of the national team's players are contracted to French clubs and a couple in the UK premiership. A breakthrough this year will see two of his "boys" playing with Super rugby teams in New Zealand. It's something he's been striving for since he arrived in Georgia.

While there are obscene amounts of money being offered in the French competition, Haig says it's not all it's cracked up to be and doesn't give his players the sort of grounding they need when they're fronting up against tier one international teams.

"So our ability to manage and monitor our overseas based players has always been a challenge remembering we only have the players for a maximum of 12 weeks in the year. That won't change so it's how good we are at managing it."

Whanganui's Milton Haig in 2005.
Whanganui's Milton Haig in 2005.

That performance is but a part of Haig's globetrotting curriculum vitae as a professional rugby coach, something he always had his mind set on doing. From his days as a Southland Boys' High School halfback and being picked for his province's senior rep team, to age group selection, playing overseas and later Bay of Plenty, he was a rugby nomad.

Part of that journey included a few years in Whanganui coaching the rep team. In his first year Whanganui won the third division title, lifting the team into the second division. He remained here until the end of the 2007. The next year he was coaching Counties-Manukau, staying with them until 2011 when he got the job as Georgia's head coach.

Haig was the first national coach to take up residence in Georgia and he said gave him a lot of credibility. The fact he'd brought along his wife and daughters counted as well. Strangers in a strange land, they soon adapted to the way of life. Six years on and the language is learned and they are part of the waft and weave of life in this nation in the Caucasus.

Angelique overcame the language problem by taking a whole bunch of flash cards with her. She'd photograph things like food items, the family home address or whatever, and simply hold up the image at a shop or to the cab driver and job done.

"Molly speaks fluently without any accent at all. When she speaks to my players they're amazed that she's not Georgian."

The girls go to an international school where Angelique was principal for three years.

"The people are really hospitable and living here has allowed us to travel all over Europe and around the world. The kids have been everywhere in the last six years. But that part of our mission as parents to give the girls those sorts of experiences to make them more rounded, global citizens as they get older."

Haig said once his coaching journey is over they will come back to New Zealand. It may even be back to Whanganui.

"Every time we come home we realise just how bloody lucky Kiwis are to live where they do. It's pretty isolated but really that's the beauty of the place. And it's our home after all."

Haig said coming back to Whanganui this time was really surprising for the family. The city's always held a special place for him and Angelique because their girls were born here.

"I've been all over the world and seen all sorts of things and I thought coming back here would have been a bit of a let-down but it's been the exact opposite."

Head coach Milton Haig, right, with Tana Umaga at media conference for Counties Manukau Rugby in 2010
Head coach Milton Haig, right, with Tana Umaga at media conference for Counties Manukau Rugby in 2010

"It's so pretty. The people who live here are just so lucky - the clean air, the clean city, the slower paced life. You look around the suburbs at the houses and how neat and tidy everyone keeps them.

"Then you've got Virginia Lake. That is just an absolutely world class park, world class. That's when you think to yourself, my God, this place has so much going for it."

Haig has got two years on his contract with Georgian rugby to run, through to the 2019 rugby World Cup. But that doesn't mean the offers aren't coming his way. In the few days he was in Whanganui just before Christmas he had one offer to coach in Japan and another suggesting he put his name forward as director of coaching at Northampton in England. But he isn't budging. He's committed to Georgia and will stay true to that contract.

And coaching back in New Zealand isn't in the Haig play book either

"In the long run I can see myself being in Europe for at least six years. There are too many opportunities up there and they're always coming up," he said.

So it means two more years in Georgia and then four years contracted to a team or country either in Europe or maybe Japan.

"The level of remuneration you're getting in these types of countries far exceeds whatever could be offered in NZ, unless I was head coach of the All Blacks," he said.

And the job opportunities for a professional coach in NZ are limited, both numerically and financially. It's the same for the players in this professional era.

"Some players never play overseas because they don't want to. Richie McCaw's one of them but then he was financially secure enough not have to chase the money. For most other guys they don't have that luxury. They have a skill set that only lasts a certain length of time and you've got to try and maximise things as much as you can.

"Again it comes back to where you go, the enjoyment of it, and the sense of purpose you have about the job."

For Haig his job, and where he's doing it, ticks all the boxes. Not just for him but also his family.

His job with Georgia was a challenge. It was relatively new in the world of international rugby, especially footing it with the top tier sides. His blueprint was for four years at least to implement what he wanted. Then it was about getting results "if you want to hold onto your job".

"One of things Angelique always said to me was 'You're not just going to do four years and then walk away and let someone take all the glory. You're going to stay there and enjoy some of the fruits of your work'.

"The reality is that after one World Cup we're only just starting to get really good at what we we're doing. But once we've done the next four years cycle (with Georgia) I think it will be time for us to go and find another challenge. The players will need a new voice and I'll probably need a new challenge as well."