Dublin: 10°C Sunday 3 July 2022

'We just said: what about Joe Schmidt? He seemed bloody good'

Georgia head coach Milton Haig crossed paths with Ireland’s top man over a decade ago in New Zealand.

Schmidt speaks to the media after last weekend's win over South Africa.
Schmidt speaks to the media after last weekend's win over South Africa.

JOE SCHMIDT SOMETIMES seems omnipresent in the world of rugby.

If he has not directly influenced or worked with other coaches, there are at least usually stories of paths crossed with the Kiwi.

Georgian head coach Milton Haig is no different, having been replaced by Schmidt at Bay of Plenty in New Zealand back in 2003. Haig moved on to Counties Manukau  at that time due to work commitments in his alternative life in the newspaper industry, but both coaches have ended up in charge of international teams more than a decade later.

The pair of will go head-to-head in Dublin on Sunday; the fifth-ranked team in world rugby against the 15th.

Former Bay of Plenty halfback Haig, a native of that region, had worked his way into the coaching world post-retirement, combining the role with advertising and design work for local newspapers.

“Those were still the days when you could do both,” says Haig of his combined duties, and a change of newspaper in 2003 saw him switching coaching allegiance from Bay of Player to Counties in the nearby Auckland region.

Schmidt stepped into the gap as backs specialist alongside Bay of Plenty head coach Vern Cotter, with whom he would later win a Top 14 title in Clermont.

“When he first started in New Zealand he took over from me with Vern,” explains Haig. “Vern and I had been coaching at Bay of Plenty and Joe is from the same area as I am. We were looking for someone to replace me because my newspaper work was moving me.

Milton Haig 11/11/2014 Haig is excited about coaching against Schmidt this weekend. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

“I don’t know if it was his big break but it was the first provincial gig he had in New Zealand. We were looking for someone but we didn’t know anyone and Joe had come in and done a session earlier on the year before.

“We just said: ‘what about Joe Schmidt? He seemed bloody good’.”

Schmidt had been working as deputy principal at the Tauranga Boys’ College at the time, but had already been building a reputation as a fine coach. Haig was certainly impressed with his successor all those years ago, when Schmidt’s part-time gig turned into a full-time profession.

When he came in and did a session for our boys, that was in 2002, he was smart. He had a really good way about his coaching style. He used questions a lot, which was good. [He was] technically very good.”

From that humble beginning, Schmidt moved swiftly into the Blues’ Super Rugby set-up in 2004, before joining Cotter in France three years later. Leinster came calling in 2010 and the rest has been an enjoyable history for Irish rugby supporters and players alike.

Haig, meanwhile, settled in at Counties Manukau, continuing to combine two jobs for a period, while the New Zealand Rugby Union recognised his talents in bringing him in to work with national U20 and Maori sides.

In 2011, the Georgian union contacted the NZRU in search of candidates to take over as their head coach after a disappointing Rugby World Cup campaign in New Zealand, where they had lost three of their games and beaten Romania in the fourth.

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Milton Haig 11/11/2014 Haig works with all levels of rugby in Georgia, from grassroots up. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Haig, by now a full-time professional coach, had the chance to move to international level and jumped at it, after getting the go-ahead from his wife, of course.

“I thought I had to take the punt one day because it is something you want to do. When someone pays you to do something you love, you are not working. It started to snowball and all of sudden this job came up three years ago and the rest is history.

“The Georgians approached the NZRU. They specifically wanted a New Zealand coach and the NZRU approached me because I had been doing that work for them and they said ‘We’d like to recommend you, would you be keen?’

I said, ‘I’ll go home and ask the boss and see what she says,’ and she was really keen. So they put me forward along with a number of other candidates as well.”

Georgia are the current European Nations Cup [sometimes called the Six Nations B] champions and will play in next year’s World Cup against New Zealand, Argentina, Tonga and Namibia; it’s clear that Haig’s decision to move to Georgia has paid off.

12 years on from his brief stint working with Schmidt at Bay of Plenty, it all comes full circle on Sunday afternoon as Haig pits his wits against Schmidt’s in-form Ireland.

Originally published 07.00

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Murray Kinsella

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