Juicy peaches, organic meat, bilingualism and a successful rugby team mean former Counties Manukau coach Milton Haig and his family feel at home in Georgia.

With the backing of the New Zealand Rugby Union, Haig assumed the coaching reins in the former Soviet republic after the last World Cup, having spent four seasons in charge of Counties Manukau.

Last weekend, Haig's Lelos earned the right to play the All Blacks at next year's World Cup after beating Romania in the European Nations Cup Division 1A final in front of a capacity crowd in Georgia's capital Tbilisi.

Haig, wife Angelique and daughters Molly (11) and Lily (8) have immersed themselves in a culture which has more family-led similarities to New Zealand than might be imagined.


"Georgia is not a wealthy country - the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991 wreaked havoc with the imports and exports for the rural economy - but a benefit is plenty of organic food.

"Peasant farmers have little money to spray chemicals, so the fruit and vegetables are like what I ate as a kid," says Haig. "The peaches and apricots at the daily markets remind me of childhoods in Central Otago."

Meat is also popular in the Georgian diet, as evidenced by the size of the Georgian team who, when they played at the last World Cup, were noted for MEEMs (Mass Eastern European Mauls) where forwards and backs morphed into a human tank. Georgian officials also host banquets the night before tests. Players, coaches, referees and others associated with the match are inundated with barbecued lamb, pork and carbo-loads of dumplings.

"Georgian tradition dictates 'your guest is second only to God'," Haig says. "They go to unbelievable lengths to ensure guests enjoy themselves."

Haig's children have enrolled at an international school (Angelique teaches there) with English and Georgian speakers.

"My eldest [Molly] is already fluent in Georgian which is important because, as a budding gymnast, she trains five days a week, three hours a night with the locals. She's a better speaker than me. There's a melting pot of languages at the school. My youngest [Lily] tells me she can say 'hello' and 'goodbye' in eight languages.

"When I started, I needed a translator but now I probably speak 70 per cent Georgian and 30 per cent English at training. Body language speaks volumes too. Players tend to know when I'm happy and a few generic words transcend the language barrier," he laughs. "Now I only need a translator at team meetings to explain things in detail. I've learned for just over a year with three lessons a week. I'm aiming to hold meetings and press conferences in Georgian within a year."

The country's passion for rugby needs no translation. Crowds are selling out the 27,000-seat national rugby stadium. Haig says an away match with Russia recently drew 55,000. The Lelos are one of the country's most successful teams, so the government is investing.


"It was telling that the Prime Ministers of both countries made presentations at last week's match," Haig says. "I feel a massive responsibility, which is probably the key difference between being head coach of a national team rather than a province.

"Georgians have taken rugby to their hearts because it's similar to a traditional game called lelo where people competed to get a leather ball from one village to another."

Haig said the contact of rugby suits their psychology and physical make-up after thousands of years defending a country bordered by the Russian Caucasus, the Black Sea, Turkey, Azerbaijan and Armenia.

"They don't mind a scrap, something youtube.com illustrates at length. Discipline is something we are still working on ...

"We were confident we'd qualify for the World Cup but every player said they wanted to be in the All Blacks group because playing the world champions makes it the ultimate experience. For a handful it'll be the icing on the cake to their careers."