With the Rugby World Cup, one of the largest sporting events in the world will be held in Japan in the next month and a half, in a sport that has little history in the Netherlands but is growing rapidly. For the Dutch men's team, a future World Cup participation is a big dream that seems increasingly realistic.
"I am an optimistic person, but I really think that it is possible that the Netherlands will play a World Cup in the future," says Dirk Danen, captain of the Dutch team. "There are plenty of people in Dutch rugby who regard that as impossible. But they are still living in the past, in which rugby in the Netherlands was fun drinking a beer and playing a game."
In recent years, rugby has become quite professional in the Netherlands. Danen practices the sport on an amateur basis. "But I am doing it seven days a week. There really is a top sport culture and we are making progress with the Dutch fifteen in recent years."
With the New Zealander Zane Gardiner, the Dutch team has had a new national coach since last summer. He was given the assignment to build on the work of his predecessors and to further increase rugby in the Netherlands.
The number of members of the rugby association in the Netherlands has doubled in nine years to sixteen thousand, including about nine thousand youth members. "This is largely due to the success of the Dutch team," says Gardiner. "And the ceiling is not yet in sight."
The New Zealander was previously the trainer of the Orange under 20, with which he caused a surprise by winning bronze at the youth European Championship. "The mindset of the young players is very professional. In the coming years more and more of them will play in Orange, and that will be interesting to see," Gardiner looks forward with hope.
Orange captain Dirk Danen. (Photo: Rugby the Netherlands)
Talents are prepared for the best in academies
The foundation for the future Orange seems solid. Eleven years ago, the first Dutch rugby academy opened in The Hague, for talents from the age of twelve.
With Alkmaar, Hilversum, Heerenveen, Nijmegen and Den Bosch there are now six academies for youth players. In addition, there has been a National Talent Center in Amsterdam since 2014, where the greatest talents are being prepared for the top.
The rugby talents have top sport status within NOC * NSF, which means flexible education can be offered, adapted to the training schedule. Danen has noticed that the level of talent is rising due to the countless hours of training. "Recently a team from a Dutch academy beat a youth team from Wales. A few years ago, that was really unthinkable."
"A few years ago I gave training to Koen Bloemen, who was a bridge class player at the academy. I now play with him in the Dutch team and he is semi-pro at Montpellier, one of the largest teams in France," says the captain of Oranje.
For example, more and more Dutch talents are taking the step to France, England or New Zealand to engage in their sport at a professional level. "You just see that the top countries are aware that something is happening here," says Gardiner. "The Dutch rugby gets more and more prestige."
European Trophy 2018/2019 final ranking
- 1. Portugal 5-25
- 2. The Netherlands 5-18
- 3. Switzerland 5-12
- 4. Poland 5-10
- 5. Lithuania 5-5
- 6. Czech Republic 5-1
Orange is ticking off against promotion
The first goal of the national coach is to promote the Orange from the European Trophy to the European Championship, where the best European countries that do not belong to the world top compete against each other. Last season, the Netherlands finished in second place in the Trophy behind Portugal, which already required promotion to the Championship. In that competition, countries can qualify for the World Cup.
"We are getting closer", Gardiner sees. "With the youth teams, we have regularly beating Championship countries like Russia and Romania. The Orange team has also achieved a high level in some games, it is now important that we constantly do so."
"We have been hitting this promotion for a few years," says Danen. "That step would really help us further, then it would be easier to find more good sponsors, for example."
According to coach Gardiner, it is the greatest achievement of his predecessor Gareth Gilbert that he has made the Orange a stable performing team. "In the past the Netherlands jumped up and down on the world ranking, now it has been stable for a number of years around 25th, 26th and 27th place. That steadiness is great for potential sponsors."
Zane Gardiner, the New Zealand national coach of Orange. (Photo: Rugby the Netherlands)
Orange hopes to expand World Cup
With the current 25th place on the world ranking, the Orange is just not among the global elite. Twenty countries are taking part in the World Cup in Japan. Brett Gosper, president of the world association World Rugby, said last year that he is considering extending the World Cup to 24 countries, possibly already in the 2023 edition in France.
"That would be fantastic news for countries like the Netherlands," says Gardiner. "I also think it's going to happen, it's in the interest of World Rugby that the sport grows and becomes popular in more countries. The possible expansion is still being discussed and I think they are waiting for the World Cup in Japan before they make a decision."
World Rugby will pay particular attention to the level difference of the absolute top countries (New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Argentina, England, France, Italy, Wales, Ireland and Scotland) and the so-called second tier countries, that at World Cups usually do not go beyond the group stage. Many monster victories from the top countries do not increase the chance of expansion of the field of participants.
"I am very curious about the upcoming World Championship and especially about the 'second tier' teams," says Danen. "They are absolute examples for us and I hope they can provide surprising results."
"The differences in rugby are huge. The English team has a budget of 200 million euros for the World Cup and the preparation, while Samoa has to do with 2 million. It seems that those players have to pay for the plane tickets to Japan themselves. would be great if countries with limited opportunities did well against the top countries. For example, at the 2015 World Cup Japan stunted by beating South Africa, so it is possible. "
The World Cup starts on Friday at 12.45 (Dutch time) with a match between host country Japan and Russia in Tokyo.