I recently met up with Willem de Jong, the new president of the Netherlands Rugby Union, to talk about Dutch rugby. I quizzed him on his ambitions to make the men (and women) in Orange a force in European rugby.
I started off by asking Willem about the current state of rugby in the Netherlands and how he sees things developing in the next few years.
Willem de Jong (WdJ): There are now over 10,000 registered players in the Netherlands, that’s double the number from just five or six years ago. One of the main drivers for this big increase is the introduction of rugby in schools.
The government is really keen to encourage better social and community spirit through the school system, so have set up special schools where students can opt for rugby – this is a really big step forward.
Both parents and teachers are enthusiastic about rugby as they feel it encourages respect for fellow-players, referees and opposing fans. There are big problems with soccer in the Netherlands, with hooliganism and racist chanting commonplace, and rugby is seen as an antidote to this.
In addition to this, the Rugby World Cup was shown on Dutch TV for the first time and
attracted over 8 million viewers over the duration of the tournament – that’s not bad for a population of under 20 million! People were really surprised with the way which fans of both teams mixed together and there was no hint of trouble. They were also amazed to see the respect shown to referees by the players – something that is sorely lacking in soccer.
So we now have real grassroots development of the sport amongst our youth, and that is definitely the way forward. The sport has to develop from the bottom up, not the other way round. In a few years you should start seeing the talent coming through at the U16s and U17s level – this will then strengthen the senior national team further down the line.
Damian Corbet (DC): So it looks like the foundation is in place for the growth of rugby in Holland. How is the senior men’s national team doing at the moment?
WdJ: The men’s national team is in Division 1B of the European Nations Cup (the 3rd tier ofEuropean rugby) along with countries like Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic. At this level it’s amateur and it’s a huge step up to Division 1A, which includes the likes of Georgia and Romania, let alone the Six Nations itself.
For the national team to become really competitive the players need to be professional. So, not only do we need youth development (which is happening) – we also need a professional league in place. At the moment there only a few big rugby clubs in the Netherlands – the rest are relatively small. There needs to be at least 10 decent-sized clubs for there to be a really competitive league. Other tier three countries can do it (Brazil is a good example) and we need to emulate that model.
DC: So how can you encourage a competitive national league to develop?
WdJ: To get a league in place will need a lot more investment at the local club level by entrepreneurs with an interest in rugby and who are willing to take a bit of a gamble. It’s not going to work having money pumped in from the governing body or the government (although it would help) – clubs need to grow and build up their support base at the grassroots level. It’s the only way.
At the moment entry to most club games is free, and while this is a good way to get people through the gates, it’s not sustainable in the long run and clubs will need to start charging – even if it’s just a nominal couple of Euros per spectator.
A competition that’s really helping our clubs is the North Sea Cup, played between the top rugby clubs of Germany, Belgium and Holland. As there isn’t enough top local competition in Holland, at least this allows our clubs to play those from neighbouring countries that are at a similar level.
Another encouraging sign is that some of our clubs, like The Hague and Utrecht, just can’t handle the number of new players coming through the ranks – there just aren’t enough coaching staff or referees, and the facilities are being put under strain. This is a nice problem to have, but it’s not viable over the long term and more funding is needed urgently.
DC: What size crowds do you get at club games in Holland?
WdJ: We get several hundred people watching local clubs (comparable to National One
in England) and get several thousand at the final. So, while rugby is still a minority sport in Holland, it’s definitely growing in popularity.
DC: Is Tim Visser (Edinburgh) seen as a role model in Holland?
WdJ: He certainly is a role model for young players. However, he is also indicative of the problem we have in retaining good players in Holland. Any players of that calibre need to move away to play professional rugby. Then there is the issue of prizing them away from their clubs for international duty. Tim is tied to Edinburgh and they are understandably reluctant to let him go to play for Holland. It now looks like he’ll soon quality to play for Scotland – and who can blame him for wanting to do so? He’s a top player who needs to play at the highest level. However, this kind of situation is really detrimental to the development of the national team, so we need to look at ways of allowing our top players to
play for Holland when required.
This takes me back to my earlier point about the urgent need for a professional league – one that can encourage, nurture and keep out best players in the country.
DC: What are you doing to drum up interest in rugby amongst the general population in Holland?
WdJ: We have three big events planned, although they are all still at the bid phase. Theaim of these events is twofold: to promote rugby as a spectator sport and also, just as importantly, to advertise its great potential to sponsors and promoters.
The first of these events is the IRB World Sevens. At the moment the only European host countries are England and Scotland. If we can make Holland one of the stop-off points of the competition it would raise the profile of rugby hugely in the Netherlands – and not only sevens – it would provide a beneficial boost for the fifteens game as well.
The second is the FIRA Grand Prix Women’s Sevens. The Dutch Women’s Sevens team is
currently ranked third in Europe, is fully professional, and has also achieved Olympic status, so they’ll be going to the 2016 Olympics in Brazil. If we can host the Women’s Sevens Series in Holland it would also be a big boost for the game.
Thirdly, I’m in negotiations with the South African Rugby Union and the Barbarians for them to play a test match in Amsterdam next year. I expect at least 30,000 spectators for the game and it would be screened on national TV. Just imagine 30,000 people turning up to watch a game of rugby in Holland! It would be amazing and I really hope it happens.
DC: Finally, where do you see Dutch rugby in 10 years’ time?
WdJ: I’d like to see our women’s sevens team win an Olympic medal. That’s an ambitious but not unrealistic goal considering their current European ranking. I’d also like to see our men’s 15s team move up the rankings into Division 1A of the European Nations Cup and be competing on an equal footing with the likes of Russia, Portugal and Spain – they could then also be in with an outside chance of qualifying for the Rugby World Cup. Again, this is a big call, but if the right investment goes in at the grassroots level, anything is possible. Just look at what’s happening to rugby in the USA now – several years of intensive grassroots development and you are now starting to see the sport really emerging and becoming more and more popular. We need to emulate that.
DC: It sounds like an exciting time for Dutch rugby. Thanks for taking the time to talk to me today, Willem. Are there any parting words you’d like to add?
WdJ: I’ve been involved in rugby for a long time and the sport has been very good to me – it’s helped me develop as an individual and I’m delighted that I now have the chance to give something back to the game. If I can help in any way to grow the game in my country and make Holland more of a force in European rugby, then I’ll be a happy man.
Willem de Jong was appointed President of the Dutch Rugby Union (Nederlandse Rugby
Bond) in July 2011for an initial period of three years. In his youth he played rugby and, with a group of friends, set up The Bassets Rugby Club in 1978 (which is still going). He was also involved in the Union but stepped away in the early 1990s to pursue his business interests. Late last year he was invited to stand for President and is now dedicating all his spare time to promoting and improving Dutch rugby.
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