When Dirk Danen made his debut for the Netherlands national team in 2010, the side was soon to be relegated to the fourth tier of European Rugby – the European Nations Cup Second Division.
Now, a decade further on, with the back-row at the helm, they stand one win away from reaching the Rugby Europe Championship, the top tier outside of the Six Nations Championship, after being declared winners of the Rugby Europe Trophy.
Zane Gardiner’s side won all four of their games but were denied the chance of a ‘Grand Slam’ when their concluding match against Switzerland was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Promotion to the Rugby Europe Championship will follow if they manage to beat the lowest-ranked team in that competition – either Romania or Belgium – on a yet to be decided date later this year. Only once before, in 2001, have they played at such a high level.
“It is unreal, and we’ve worked hard for it as well,” said Danen. “It’s going to be great to have that challenge, I’ll look forward to that.
“It’s too bad we couldn’t play that Switzerland game. It would have been a good game because Switzerland are doing quite well.”
In previous years, the Netherlands have always been the bridesmaid but never the bride, finishing second to Portugal three years on the trot.
However, with a weakened Germany dropping down to the Rugby Europe Trophy, the Netherlands knew they had a chance to finally break the cycle of near-misses.
“Our bogey team, Portugal, had gone. It was our chance to take the division and get the opportunity to play in that promotion game and then have a look at where we are and see if we are good enough to play in the Championship. We think we are,” said Hein Kriek, technical director of Rugby Netherlands.
Crucial to their success was last November’s result against Germany who, historically, have had the upper hand over the Dutch.
For Danen, whose dream of becoming a professional started in the German rugby hotspot, Heidelberg, to get a 37-7 win was particularly sweet.
“For us to win that game was huge. Germany were always ahead of us and I looked up to them a little bit because when I played there, I always felt they were more professional and took the game more seriously.
“Obviously, they weren’t the strongest German team that we’ve seen but, still, we took the moment and did it.
“For me, to win in Heidelberg, where I played, against a team coached by my former coach Mark Kuhlmann, was really special.”
In terms of the professionalism of their approach, the Netherlands have certainly caught up, if not overtaken, Germany in the last few years with the creation of six regional academies and a National Training Centre (NTC) in Amsterdam underpinning the strength of the national team.
“I’ve been coaching some of the kids in the academies and you see the hours they put into it, and that’s the difference, I think,” Danen said.
“The effort they put in is unreal, next to their jobs.
"There is a lot of talent. Koen Bloemen is a great example. A few years ago I coached him and now he’s got a contract in Federale 1 in France, and I am playing alongside him in the national team.
“The boys are really up for it, you can see the fire in their eyes, and that’s why I still want to play for the national team.”
Former technical director/head coach Gareth Gilbert was the driving force behind the NTC and the academies, and the Netherlands’ best-ever World Rugby Ranking of 23rd (they are currently 25th) came during his tenure.
New Zealander Gardiner took up the reins last October, having been promoted from his role with the U20s, and he couldn’t have asked for a better start to his time in charge.
“We’ve got a group of players who’ve come through the pathway, they have gone to the regional academies and, at the moment, half of the national team is made up of NTC players,” said Gardiner.
“This is the first team to have more of a professional mindset; they have come through development programmes instead of just playing club rugby and jumping straight up into the national team, which is a big jump.”
Gardiner says the BENE Cup has also been another important step in improving the national team.
Running for the past three years, it involves the top four club teams in the elite Dutch League, the EreKlasse Championship, and the top four Belgium clubs.
“It’s helped the players get used to different tactics. The Dutch club league is pretty fast and open, and all the guys are pretty skilful because of their time in the academies, but in Belgium, the game is more physical; you get players lying all over the ball at the breakdown and it is more combative.
“They also referee differently. Our referees try and let the game flow whereas their refs allow stuff to happen that our guys are not used to week in, week out.
“We’d love to make the BENE Cup a league, hopefully, the top German teams would be interested, and we could have a cross-border competition.”
It has been confirmed that @RugbyNLD have won the Rugby Europe Trophy, therefore earning them a play-off place for a spot in the Rugby Europe Championship!— Rugby Europe (@rugby_europe) July 10, 2020
With the EreKlasse Championship set for a revamp in 2021, more Dutch players picking up pro contracts overseas and talk of a Europe-wide super club competition, there is plenty going on to help further bridge the gap to test rugby.
“One of the things we are trying to do is develop regional rugby,” said Kriek.
“Rugby Europe is going to start a club competition, with a team from each of the six Championship sides and two from the Trophy.
“We want to follow the Sunwolves franchise model and look to put in a Dutch Selection XV in that rather than a club side.”
Having an eight-month gap between fixtures is hardly ideal preparation for what is the Netherlands’ biggest game in recent history. They haven’t played together since beating Lithuania 36-17 on 7 March.
However, in Emmanuel Peyrezabes, their head of athletic performance, they are in good hands, despite the challenges of keeping in shape during the pandemic.
A former lifeguard and professional rugby player in France, Peyrezabes has experience of working in New Zealand, Australia and with the Portugal sevens team, before joining the Dutch revolution.
“I am really lucky to have a group of players who are very committed and who push one another,” the Frenchman said.
“The guys want more than just the Trophy, that is how we have set up our culture.
“Six years ago, when we didn’t have the NTC, if you’d have said we could be in the Championship, people would have thought you were crazy, yet here we are.
“Sometimes people say dreams aren’t achievable, but I don’t think that; it is time to push forward.”
The rugby-playing population of the Netherlands has grown to 16,000 and promotion to the Championship will no doubt fuel interest further.
But Danen knows their brand of total rugby – fast and dynamic – will never replace total football in the hearts and minds of the Dutch public.
“We will never be able to compare with football, and that’s fine with me, there’s no frustration,” he said.
“I’m just looking at what we can achieve and if we can keep growing step by step, beautiful things will happen.”
Photo: Dennis van de Sande