The Netherlands’ return to the second-tier of international European rugby for the first time in 19 years has been a steep learning curve, but it’s been one that head coach Zane Gardiner feels Dutch rugby can look back on positively.
Defeats to Georgia, Portugal, Russia and Romania leave the Dutch bottom of the Rugby Europe Championship 2021, with 200 points conceded, as they prepare for what is the final test of the year against Spain on Saturday, 18 December.
It has been an emotional rollercoaster for everyone involved in Dutch rugby, from working through the challenges of COVID-19 to give the national team the best possible chance of success, to the play-off win against Belgium in May, and now to the lessons being handed to them by other established nations.
“We are excited for Spain, we won’t have our overseas guys back, because it is outside the window, but that’s okay. As I said right from the start, this is about learning how to train and how to perform at Championship level and what it is actually like to play against these teams,” said Gardiner, a New Zealander by birth.
“It’s been brilliant to go to Romania, to be in that stadium, to meet Andy Robinson, and to talk to these guys and earn respect in some regards.
“Obviously the scoreboards haven’t been in our favour but that is something we are looking at now. We are managing to do things in patches, and the players are starting to build belief.”
For the Spain game, the Netherlands have stepped up preparations and will stay together in a hotel from Thursday through to game day.
Rubbing shoulders with the big boys has become serious business.
“Off-field preparation has improved, the players have taken on board that they have to be more accountable and you have to put a bit more in, you just can’t turn up and get the game plan and get away with it on your talent alone,” said Gardiner, a former semi-pro, dual-code player.
“Physicality is the biggest thing that we are struggling with at the moment, it fatigues you way faster than if you were just running in tries.
“The scrums and lineouts and mauls and the one-on-one contact are draining, and the fast game that we want to play becomes a lot harder. You start losing the breakdowns, you start losing your one-on-one battles, guys aren’t cleaning rucks out because they are tired and the defence becomes tight and compact around the ruck because they can’t fan out; it is a sort of a snowball effect.
“We’re working on that now and getting help from World Rugby, on how to help the players with their strength and conditioning so that they can withstand the physicality but still play the rugby we want to play and enjoy.”
For the Netherlands, Rugby World Cup 2027 is something to aim for.
World Rugby assessor, Phil Davies, who worked miracles with Namibia, has been helping the Dutch with their High Performance plan, while national team S&C coach, Emmanuel Peyrezabes, is being supported by Stade Francais S&C coach Ben Pollard, formerly of England and Saracens.
Saracens had the famed “Wolf Pack” defence and the Netherlands need some bite in that area themselves having conceded an average of 50 points per game.
“Manu is going to Paris to spend time with him and then Ben will come to the Netherlands to look at how we want to play, how we can implement this into the training, and how we can get the players physically capable of executing that.”
The Spain game gives the Netherlands an opportunity to open their Rugby Europe Championship account and go into the second year of the Rugby World Cup 2023 qualification cycle with some much-needed momentum.
“It’s about performing now, to push Spain and see how we can put pressure on them, and build some momentum because, funnily enough, Spain is our first game in February,” revealed Gardiner.
“We are working on our scheduling now because it is five games in seven weeks and we have never had anything like that before.”