Inge Visser has watched Australian women’s rugby blossom over the past eight years, and the Dutchwoman is ready to play an important role in the next stage of its development.
Visser was part of the Netherlands sevens squad that stunned Australia in the semi-finals of the World Rugby Women’s Sevens Challenge Cup at Twickenham in 2012.
But while that 14-12 victory remains the zenith for both Visser and the Dutch women’s sevens programme — which had been the first in the world to reward its female players with full-time contracts — it worked as a catalyst for their opponents.
Australia, whose women’s sevens programme was in its infancy eight years ago, would go on to win gold at Rio 2016 as rugby made its return to the Olympic Games.
“Beating Australia at Twickenham in 2012, that was massive,” Visser told World Rugby.
“But I think after that a lot changed for Australian rugby and it’s also very cool to see because a lot of those girls, like Sharni Williams, they were just starting playing then, you know.”
Visser already had a connection to Australia when the two countries met in London in 2012. Between 2008-09 the Dutchwoman had backpacked around the country and played rugby along the way, including a three-month spell with the Warringah Rats in Sydney.
And having played for the Netherlands at Rugby World Cup Sevens 2013 in Russia, she made the decision to return to the southern hemisphere.
Since landing back in New South Wales, Visser has contributed heavily to the continued development of women’s rugby in the country in both sevens and 15s.
Visser played for NSW Rugby in the inaugural season of the 15-a-side Super W competition in 2018 and is currently head coach of the UNE Rugby Lions in the Aon Uni Sevens Series. She is assisted by Tui Ormsby in Armidale and oversees a squad that contains internationals Alicia Lucas and Rhiannon Byers.
In addition to her high-performance commitments, she has helped to set up academies in rural areas of New South Wales in order to help identify talent in hard-to-reach areas of the vast state, such as Bathurst and Cowra.
“I first came to the countryside and everywhere I think I’ve tried to leave the rugby in a better place,” Visser explained.
“I was first in central-west and represented Central West Rugby and NSW Country there and set up a few girls’ teams, and then when I moved over to the Central Coast I [started] a women’s competition, a women’s team here.
“I’ve been coaching, I co-founded the Central Coast Rugby Sevens Academy with David Gee and have helped to set up a women’s sevens team at Avoca Beach.
“When you start playing rugby and stuff like that, you always try to involve everybody and it’s not like you only turn up for training and you do your thing, it’s a lifestyle thing.”
Even while playing Visser had been identified by Rugby Australia Talent Development and Recruitment Manager, Hugh Carpenter as a future coach.
So Visser was not completely shocked when she was approached about the possibility of applying for the inaugural Women’s Sport Leadership Academy for High Performance Coaches (WSLA HPC).
The surprise arrived when Visser was selected as one of seven female sevens coaches to take part in the pilot programme, which is part-funded by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and features representatives of cycling, rowing, tennis, triathlon and wrestling as well as rugby.
“I felt pretty privileged to be chosen,” Visser said.
“To be honest, I didn’t really know what I was going in to. I knew it was a year-and-a-half course and we had to go over to London, and of course with the other coaches from other [sports].
“I knew that there would already be coaches in the programme who would be paid and would already be up there, and I just thought ‘ah, that’s why we learn’.
“I was probably making 10 reasons why I wouldn’t be good enough or the timing wasn’t right to go. As soon as I stepped in the room with all the other coaches I knew I was in the right spot.
“Just to learn about your qualities and your opportunities to do this and this actually is the moment to step in and do those sort of courses.”
Building a better network
Visser is still working out exactly how she will use her scholarship and is in regular contact with her mentor, Wallaroos assistant coach Peter Breen.
Having recently got engaged to her Australian boyfriend, she sees her long-term future in the southern hemisphere but that does not mean her roots have been forgotten.
Visser was first introduced to the game while working in hospitality at the Beach Rugby Festival in Ameland, the Dutch island in the north sea on which she grew up.
And she has strengthened links between Australia and her home country, hosting young Dutch players while helping hopeful Australians experience another style of rugby in the Netherlands.
“I don’t see [the scholarship as] specific to Australia, I see it more in the world,” she added.
“Even now, I’m still involved with the Netherlands and in the last couple of years had so many players coming over here playing with me or I put them in other teams. Also boys over here [and] I’ve been sending them over to my old club in the Netherlands.”
On her hopes for the future, both in Australia and the Netherlands, Visser is rightfully positive.
“How we’ve set it up [in Australia], it’s actually already done a lot of pretty good stuff because out of the group of girls who were out in the countryside there are now a couple who are in the Super W and my student got looked into by Aussie sevens.
“Jakiya Whitfield is another one out of Bathurst. She started with us, with the programme I set up with Nancy Haslope at the Western Region Academy of Sport, and fell in love with the game — so it’s amazing to see that sort of stuff.
“I think we can achieve with the programmes where we’re coaching to form a better network and we can work together closely and I personally get a lot of joy out of that.
“Getting those players over [to Australia] and experienced because I’ve done it myself. If you can travel over to the other side of the world you get to know people and get to know other teams and look and learn.
“So, hopefully I will get a couple more Dutchies coming this way and we can send players that way. That will make me very happy.”