Haig’s Lelos Can Be History-Makers at Rugby World Cup

As Georgia finish off their preparations for a fourth appearance at a Rugby World Cup, the Lelos’ New Zealander head coach Milton Haig is satisfied that the country’s national rugby team has never been better drilled for rugby’s showpiece event.

“This is the best preparation that Georgia has ever had,” said Haig ahead of Georgia’s opening match against Tonga in Gloucester on September 19.

Haig was not in charge for Georgia’s last World Cup appearance in 2011 where Scotsman Richie Dixon guided the Lelos to victory against Romania and credible performances in defeats to England, Scotland and Argentina.

Georgia turned a few heads that time in New Zealand and, having beaten the likes of Samoa and Japan in test matches since then, they arrive in England slightly less of an unknown quantity.

Indeed, it was the World Cup prior to the last, in France 2007, where Georgia really caught the attention of the rugby world, running Ireland to within a whisker of a dramatic defeat as the Irish escaped with a 14-10 win in Bordeaux.

That year Georgia did however record their first ever victory at a World Cup, overcoming Namibia 30-0 in Lens.

Georgia have won one game at each of their last two World Cups and the mission now is to record two victories at the group stage, a not insurmountable feat that would also see them qualify automatically for Japan 2019.

Their chances of reaching the quarter-final, something that could be secured by the aforementioned two victories mission, are slim according to the seldom wrong bookmakers who are offering a price of 50/1 on Georgia to make the last 8.

For those who abstain from gambling, simply put this means that if you bet 1 Lari on Georgia to reach the quarter-finals, you would win 50 Lari if they did so.

Nevertheless, Georgia are being written about with respect, particularly in the Guardian’s preview which forecasts the Lelos upsetting Tonga, and possibly even Argentina.

It is the opener against Tonga that appears pivotal to Georgia’s tournament though. The Georgians dropped three places to 16th in the recently announced world rankings, five places below Tonga who won 23-9 in Tbilisi last November.

At the time, head coach Haig admitted the match had not gone as planned but insisted that the game and result would have no bearing on the now imminent World Cup clash, a sentiment echoed by his Tongan counterpart. Indeed, the Tongans may have more World Cup experience but they too have never sampled the knockout stage.

Georgia may have lost all three of their warm-up matches against Falcons, Canada and Japan, but Haig is adamant that preparations have been ideal.

Following the Tonga clash, Georgia, again in Gloucester, face a familiar World Cup foe in the shape of Argentina on September 25. Los Pumas know only too well the threat Georgia pose, as this will be their third World Cup meeting, with the latest encounter particularly nervy for the Argentines.

They emerged with a 29-18 win having been trailing at half-time in 2011. Argentina are favorites to land second place in this group with a formidable recent pedigree in the tournament, reaching the semis in 2007 and the quarters four years ago.

The giants of Pool C are New Zealand who are expected to make light work of every team in the group, and are overwhelming favorites to retain their crown as world champions, something that has never been done since the Rugby World Cup’s inception in 1987.

It will be “a dream come true” according to Haig, to lead out Georgia against his native All Blacks in Cardiff on October 2. While upsets are possible in the opening two matches, against New Zealand if Georgia can score a try or two and keep their illustrious opponents to within 25 points, it would go down as a relatively successful exercise.

The final group game takes place in Exeter in southwest England, where Namibia will be the opponents on October 7. Victory here is all but assumed although the significance of the match will depend on earlier results in the Pool, especially against Tonga and Argentina.

The tournament lasts over six weeks, with the final on October 31 at Twickenham in London.

Alastair Watt

17 September 2015 21:10