On March 7, when the Irish were supposed to host the Italians in the Six Nations, a number of other matches of significance will still be played. On that day, the Georgian men host Portugal and can win the Rugby Europe International Championship with a match to spare. The same day, the English men and women will face their Welsh counterparts. It will also be the day the Rugby Europe Womens Championship kicks off at the National Rugby Centre Amsterdam. It will be the day Netherlands’ Orange Ladies XV begin a new journey.

The Dutch ladies host Russia in that first match, pitting the current number 17 against the number 15 in the world rankings. It is the 2019 runner-up of the Rugby Europe Women’s Championship against the number three.

A bit more than a decade ago, few would really have paid much attention to a match like this, but things have changed. Rugby, in general, has grown, but women’s rugby has boomed. One of the places this can be seen most keenly is the Netherlands.

Next year, the 2021 Rugby World Cup takes place in New Zealand. This will be the first Women’s World Cup that will be scheduled in four-year cycles, in the same way as the men’s. Before, World Rugby scheduled the World Cups every year, in the same way as the u20 and u18 World Cups. This change is significant, explains the new Dutch coach Sylke Haverkorn.

“When you look at the friendlies we played against Hong Kong last year, we had 15 new caps over two matches,” she says. “It was a shame we lost those games, but we were just not ready. It has been like that for years now, where we had to build a new team every year.

“At the same time, you always had to balance it with elite sevens, with their World Cup, and the Olympics. The spacing means that is no longer the case.”

She speaks from experience, having played prop for the Netherlands for over a decade. After stopping as an active player in 2016, she began coaching the first team of her club RUS (Rugbyende Utrechtse Studentes), a powerhouse in Dutch women’s rugby. The last two seasons she was also been forwards coach of the men’s first XV at DIOK Leiden, the reigning Dutch champions.

September last year, she agreed to take over the running of the national team. A task that goes beyond that of just national team coach.

“We have decided to change things a bit. We used to focus on the sevens for the national team and it was ok for players to only play and train sevens. Since this season we have changed that. Now, you have to play club 15s in order to play sevens for your country as well.

“That is because the growth of the game in the country right now is in 15s and we do not want to exclude a lot of players from reaching the top level. When you focus solely on sevens, you always leave players out, and you actually lose players doing that.

“They are different games, though of course the skill sets are the same. Sevens is all about decision making, finding space and playing out one-on-ones. The directness and physicality, you only get from 15s.”

The other thing that has changed for the Dutch ladies is the newly established U18 Girls. Under coaches Sascha Werlich and Richard van den Broek, a U18 sevens was already set up, but Haverkorn and her staff made work of the 15-a-side version too. Alongside a full second team, this means there is real strength in depth now.

“Right now, with the youth coming through and having the U18 Girls XV and the sevens teams, we have a good flow of talent and there is continuity. That will be a massive strength for us in the next few years.”

These youth teams tie in well with the Dutch academy system, where youth players, female and male, from U14 and upwards can train more often and at a higher level while playing club rugby.

Of course, while the benefit of these cannot be denied, Haverkorn finds it most important players have done a good level of sports in their youth.

“The players we have who have played since they were three or six years old have the best understanding of the game, but then we get people who come from judo who are some of the best in the contact and have those important falling skills. Former footballers often make for the best kickers and swimmers and tennis players often have the upper body development we can use. In the end, we do really need every one of those qualities to make a great team.”

Besides the development goals, Haverkorn’s sporting goals for the next few years are ambitious but achievable. She wants to see the Netherlands break into the top 10 of the world rankings in the next four years. Alongside that, she wants to make it to a Rugby World Cup.

“That might not be next year, but the next time again. But that is the level we do want to achieve.”

The new team captain confirms that. “If we don’t make it this time, it’s not a big deal. It would be great for the team, though, and for the game if we do make that qualifier in September,” says Linde van der Velden.

The 25-year-old, who began playing in Castricum and now represents French club Stade Toulousain, became captain at the same time as Haverkorn took over management of the team.

With a cousin who played for Castricumse RC and the Dutch 15s and sevens teams, and a father who played for RC Smugglers, she grew up around the game. She only began playing at 17, though, at Castricum. Four years later, her talent was recognized and she was selected for the Dutch team by then-coach Sascha Werlich, who soon also picked her to play sevens in the orange jersey.

She caught the tail end of the Dutch World Rugby Sevens Series adventure and played a number of tournaments on the European circuit and the World Series qualifier in Hong Kong. Now a back rower as well as an experienced sevens player, she is a force to be reckoned with on the pitch.

Alongside her passion for what she does, which she transfers onto the team, her attitude about the game, as well as her bachelor in spatial design, is very healthy and modest. “I’m just trying to be the best version of myself I can be. I want to get the best out of myself. That is also what I expect from my teammates.”

The game in France has proved a challenge for her, and not just because of the language barrier. “The game is so much faster. They barely do rucks and when they do, they want the ball out within seconds. I really had to get used to that.”

Recently, she also played a tryout match for Exeter Chiefs in the Premiership Rugby, where there would be more opportunities to play. “You can really see the development happening there. They often have a staff of eight around the team. And because the English national team players, the only full pros, are expected to train and play at a similar level in their clubs as they would during national team camps, all the other women have access to facilities and trainers too. It makes a huge difference, being able to do handling drills with a coach on the pitch, rather than just doing your gym work and leaving it with that.”

van der Velden is not the only semi-pro on the side either. This season, she has met Tamara Stock, who plays for Stade Rennais, in the French competition. Three-quarter Pleuni Kievit plays sevens with Nagato Blue Angels in Japan.

The challenges she sets herself are also reflected in the high standards she sets for her team. “If you set high standards for the team and for yourself, you will push that little bit more and get that much further.”

When asked about the upcoming campaign, both coach and captain show confidence. “Russia is a hard, physical team and they are fit. Most of their World Series Sevens players will be on that team too, which will pose a challenge for us. But we are definitely in a place where we can beat them,” says Haverkorn.

“We played them in the Sevens Grand Prix last summer,” says van der Velden, “I’m confident, but those girls are tough as nails.”

It is world number 10 that will be the big challenge though.

“Spain will be a tough nut to crack. They have the highest number of female players in Europe there, and they are a settled side. They do not have the problem of having a completely new team every year, which we have had for a while now,” according to Haverkorn. “If we have a good day, we can certainly beat them, but for years now that is the hurdle we have failed to cross. We have ended second place to Spain many years in a row now.”

van der Velden seems less confident about that match than the match against Russia but approaches that challenge with the same attitude she shows elsewhere. “We will give it our all and try to be the best we can be. That is all we can do.”

When the Orange Ladies XV kick off their campaign this year against Russia, no matter what, it is the start of a journey. This year could be a step towards the World Cup, which would allow them finally to join the Dutch handball and football ladies in the limelight. At the same time, it will be the first step on the long road to becoming a solid tier one nation in women’s rugby. And a journey like that is one to follow for any lover of the game.

*The match will be live-streamed at 12:00 local time

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by Paul Peerdeman