Milton Haig has set himself a target for his time with the USA Women’s Eagles, to reconnect the team to its glorious past.
Haig was appointed interim head coach earlier this month, having initially been approached by World Rugby to work with the squad as a consultant ahead of WXV 2.
The former Georgia men’s coach has since put together a coaching group to oversee the USA’s campaign in South Africa and met the players for the first time last week, during a training camp in Ireland.
Haig admits he was unsure whether he was the right person to take over from Rich Ashfield given he had never previously coached a women’s team. However, he is grateful to his wife and two daughters for convincing him to accept the opportunity.
“They all just said, ‘Look dad, you need to give it a go. Why wouldn’t you?’” Haig told World Rugby towards the end of his first week in charge.
“I’m really pleased that I did take that opportunity because it’s been a wonderful, wonderful experience so far.”
No country did more to help cultivate the growth of the women’s game than the USA, whose clubs travelled the world in the 1970s and ‘80s to spread the gospel.
The Women’s Eagles duly won the inaugural women’s Rugby World Cup, in Wales in 1991, and finished as runners-up at the next two editions in Scotland and the Netherlands.
Although they finished fourth at Rugby World Cup 2017, results have been increasingly hard to come by in the intervening six years.
The USA have won only four of the 17 tests they have contested since November 2021, finishing bottom of the World Rugby Pacific Four Series 2023 standings, without a victory, to miss out on a place in WXV 1 next month.
Haig admits that returning the Women’s Eagles to their former glories was a huge factor in his decision to accept the interim post.
“One of the real incentives was the history of the USA [Women’s] Eagles. I mean, I can remember a time when they were number one in the world and quite clearly the number one team in the world,” Haig said.
“I think one of the things that intrigued me was, what I could do to actually help that become a reality again. So, that's what I'm here for.
“That's why it'll take all my energy and all my enthusiasm to make sure that we can get them on that path again.
“You know, when you look at the potential of this group, it's unbelievable and that, again, makes all of us who are in the coaching group very, very excited.”
Haig and his staff were accompanied in Ireland by Ashfield and he says that his predecessor has been “invaluable” in ensuring a smooth transition for the players.
“If you come into a group or a campaign where you've not had a lot of experience with the group it's important that you understand where they were, where they've come from,” Haig said.
“Then, obviously you want to add your pieces in. But to me, it's also got to fit within the group that you're coaching as well.”
Creating winning structures
Ultimately, Haig wants to create a winning environment, something he admits is not always easy when a team does not necessarily expect to win matches.
Haig has no doubt that the squad has the quality required to turn defeats into victories. It is his and his coaching staff’s job, he says, to provide the attacking and defensive structures that will enable the players to make the right decisions under pressure.
“We think that if we can make a 25 per cent increase on those things within the first couple of weeks, before we get down to WXV 2, we'll be in a really good position to win those three test matches down in South Africa,” he said.
Fans will get a first glimpse of Haig’s USA in Colwyn Bay on 30 September, when the Women’s Eagles take on Wales at Stadiwm CSM.
But make no mistake, Haig and his squad are travelling to Stellenbosch and Cape Town intent on beating Samoa, Scotland and Italy.
“Absolutely, hell yeah. We're ranked number seven in the world, so effectively at the moment, we are ranked above these teams,” Haig said.
“If it's arrogance, it's arrogance, but we've got to take that arrogance and we've got to make sure that that's how we present ourselves. Because, if you portray that arrogance and that confidence then people look at that and they go, ‘Oh my goodness’.
“How we portray ourselves and how we present ourselves off the field to me is sometimes just as important as how we present ourselves on the field in terms of that psychological warfare.
“So again, that's going to be something that I'm going to be pushing as we go through this campaign. We have a massive legacy, this team, and it's a fantastic story and I think what's happened over the years is that story and that legacy has got lost and people just haven't remembered it.
“So, that's another thing that I'd like to bring into this campaign. And, whether I'm involved later on in this team's history, I'm not sure but in the long run… I’d like [that] if they remember anything, it's the fact that we want them to keep going back to what their legacy is as an organisation and as a team.”
(Photo credit: Ian Muir/USA Rugby)