To stand still is to go backwards is a phrase that Georgia head coach Milton Haig readily adopts as he strives to push the Lelos on to even greater heights.
Having achieved their goal of automatic qualification for Rugby World Cup 2019 through a third place finish in Pool C at this year’s tournament, Haig is determined that the gains made in England are only the start of things to come.
The New Zealander has every reason to be optimistic. With a conveyor of talent ready to come through the national rugby academy and follow in the footsteps of scrum-half Vasil Lobzhanidze, Georgia should have a squad every bit as good, if not better, than the one that achieved wins over Tonga and Namibia at RWC 2015 in Japan in four years’ time.
Lobzhanidze became the youngest player in Rugby World Cup history when he played in the 17-10 victory against Tonga on the opening weekend, aged just 18 years and 340 days.
“I first saw him play when I’d just arrived in Georgia and he was with the Under 15s. I thought back then, ‘jeez, he can play’, although we’re all surprised how quickly he has come through," Haig said.
“He is a prime example that our youth programmes are working. It is reassuring but at the same time you don’t want to get comfortable with what you are doing. You continue trying to get more young people playing.
“Rugby is the most popular sport in our country, they come to rugby not football so our job is to make sure they have a really good experience when they take up the sport, because if you do that you’ll hang on to them for longer.
“If you can build the player base at grass roots level the greater your chances are of having an ‘x-factor’ player or two coming through.
“We have got two or three young kids back home in Georgia who were very unlucky not to be involved in this World Cup.”
Haig (pictured) oversees Georgia’s national rugby academy programmes to ensure uniformity in the approach towards player development.
“Our high performance programme and our academy programme has been going really well on an international level,” he said.
“Our under 18s defeated Ireland and Italy to get through to the European elite final for the first time this year and the under 20s won the World Rugby U20 Trophy for the first time and will play in next year's Championship.
“Watching the under 15s and under 16s play is like watching a New Zealand team, it so exciting for me because I know some of them will be in contention for 2019. Everything is pretty rosy for us.
“To be fair all I have done is taken what I’ve done for 15 years in New Zealand and implemented it with Georgia,” he added.
“I know the basic mechanics of what works and what doesn’t work at that level and then it is about getting buy-in from all the national age coaches and the academy coaches and upskilling them to make sure they are teaching what they should be teaching and just watching it grow.
“The Georgian game was very one-dimensional through the forwards. Without impacting on our traditional strengths upfront, we knew we needed to try and expand our approach if we were going to put pressure on the tier one teams and be successful at the World Cup. Everyone, players and coaches, has bought into that."
"“The Georgian game was very one-dimensional through the forwards ... we knew we needed to try and expand our approach if we were going to put pressure on the tier one teams and be successful at the World Cup"
Former Ireland international Michael Bradley came on board as attack coach a couple of years ago, while World Rugby’s investment in the development of tier two nations saw highly-acclaimed strength and conditioning coach Calvin Morriss become part of the backroom team for RWC 2015.
“We were lucky to have a guy of Calvin’s experience taking charge of our strength and conditioning programme. He’s done three World Cups with England and the players said themselves that were fitter and stronger than four years ago, which meant we were able to compete for longer.
"The addition of outside coaching expertise in these areas has been really good for us."
Georgia's immediate focus will be on retaining the European Nations Cup title for a sixth consecutive year when the binennial competition resumes in February. They currently sit atop the Division 1A table following five straights wins in 2015.
"It is absolutely vital that we continue to push on and take a couple more steps up the ladder by the time 2019 comes around," Haig added.