Netherlands head coach Zane Gardiner has targeted two wins after guiding his side back to the Rugby Europe Championship for the first time in 19 years.
David Weersma notched 18 points, including the decisive late penalty, as the Netherlands clinched a nail-biting 23-21 victory in their winner-takes-all promotion play-off against Belgium in Waterloo on Saturday.
Weersma’s winning kick earned the Dutch their place in this season’s Championship for the first time since 2002, and propelled them up one place to 24 in the World Rugby Men's Rankings and into contention for a place at Rugby World Cup 2023.
🇳🇱 | A late penalty takes the Netherlands into the 2021 Rugby Europe Championship, what a game and what a finish! pic.twitter.com/mAvmLFmbzX— Rugby Europe (@rugby_europe) May 29, 2021
However, ahead of matches against Georgia, Romania, Russia, Spain and Portugal — starting next month against the Lelos in Telavi — Gardiner has set his side the task of establishing themselves in the division.
“Let's just see after this first block of games and use them to build and then next season have a real crack at rolling a few more teams,” Gardiner told World Rugby.
“Let's just get the experience and compete and perform to the best that we can perform and take our learnings from that and just build a real strong foundation.
“We're not really focused on the World Cup, we're just focused on the Championship.”
He added: “If we can win two games, be competitive in the other ones, I think that's successful. I think it's realistic.
“I think we should aim for winning two games and the players will probably tell me they want to aim for winning more, and that's fine, I've got no problem with that. But for me, we have to measure ourselves.
“And, that's what Saturday was about. We haven't played a Championship team, we’ve been playing Trophy teams so we haven't been under that kind of pressure, with that physicality and playing against professional players and semi-professional players.
“With amateurs it's tough and that's why the guys, they showed so much courage to get into the physical state that they were [in].”
‘They executed the plan perfectly’
The visitors led the match, which was broadcast live by major Dutch cable sports network, Ziggo, 13-0 shortly after half-time in Waterloo, as Weersma added a second penalty to the try he had scored and converted in the opening period.
Hosts Belgium hit back, however, as they battled to retain their Championship status, and led 21-20 with five minutes remaining as Alan Williams converted a Thomas De Molder score.
“I was OK because they only ever went ahead by one,” Gardiner said of his belief in his side late on.
“We were only ever a score away, a penalty kick, and I knew that David Weersma's a good kicker and he's good under pressure.
“So I knew when it mattered he'd kick it even though, you know, he'd missed a couple of easier ones in the match. But I knew when it came down to it, he could kick it.
“We'd sort of practised these sorts of scenarios where we were behind and we need that, we need to get the penalty or we were behind or we were winning and we need to close out the game. All that sort of stuff, and training under intense pressure and then taking the kicks.
“And, so the guys were mentally ready to do it, and they executed the plan perfectly.”
Enjoying the moment
Weersma held his nerve to convert the decisive 76th-minute penalty and kick-start some emotional, if muted, Dutch celebrations at the team hotel and on the bus ride home to Amsterdam.
The Dutch players had waited 10 months for their opportunity to contest the play-off, watching on as the match was postponed on several occasions due to COVID-19 restrictions.
“The boys, you know, had to let off a bit of steam and enjoy the moment,” Gardiner said.
“We talked about that, how we have to just acknowledge what we'd been through and all the challenges and everything like that that they had to endure and the sacrifices they made.
“Because the majority of the team are amateur, and then to go out and put a performance like that on the field was great.”
Gardiner admitted the team’s front-row forwards are already excited by the prospect of measuring themselves and their progress against the Georgian pack next month.
And, although he was only able to select 23 players to compete on the field, the head coach dedicated victory to the playing and support staff that gave up their time over the past six months to ensure the match-day squad arrived in Waterloo in the best possible shape.
“That was all part of what we talked about as a team. We said, ‘Look, no matter what happens in this game that's coming, if we train during this period, we're going to build strong bonds and we're going to build something that's going to be strong for years to come’,” Gardiner said.
“They saw that starting to click in April, it started to come together and then they started to really build their understanding and build those bonds. And, in the end, I think that's what really made the difference in the game.”
He added: “The wider squad was essential to get these guys ready and for the future as well, moving forward, we understand that you need to have 50 guys so you can rotate players.”