Netherlands U20 head coach Gareth Gilbert says qualifying for the World Rugby U20 Trophy for the first time is a dream come true for the emerging rugby nation.
Having finished runners-up to Spain in the final of the Rugby Europe U20 Championship 2022, they went one better last weekend with a 26-16 victory over Belgium earning them the right to play in next year’s global competition.
🇳🇱 Netherlands open the scoring through Jules Swier! pic.twitter.com/TjHEB3FkOj— Rugby Europe (@rugby_europe) November 19, 2023
At the end of the match, Gilbert stood on the pitch at the Markéta Stadium in Prague trying to take it all in.
“I has always been a dream of ours to do this, I am so proud,” said Gilbert.
“I couldn’t believe it. You think about all the long hours, days and weeks that all the players have put in and everyone in the office has put in for this to happen.”
The Netherlands are the second team after Uruguay to come through the regional qualifiers and their success has not come by accident.
Under Technical Director Kristoff Vanhaut the domestic player pathway in the Netherlands is in rude health, and people like Gilbert, an influential figure in Dutch rugby for the past two decades, have played a massive part.
Gilbert has held many roles with Rugby Nederlands since he first came over from Africa as a player in 2003, including leading the women’s team to Rugby World Cup Sevens 2013.
In addition to his U20 head coach job, he is currently coach of his local Ereklasse club, Gooi, as well as managing one of the five regional academies, so has a very good handle on the state of the Dutch player pipeline.
“I have known most of these kids since they were 12 years old, they have come through our academies, and we have tracked their progress and we have tried to do our best to develop them,” he said.
“Thirteen or 14 of our team came through the academies and then went overseas, to a higher level in France or to the UK, and that’s what you want: you want the cream of your crop to broaden their horizons.
“But the foundation was laid by our pathway.”
A final that neither team deserved to lose. 👏— Rugby Europe (@rugby_europe) November 19, 2023
It's the NETHERLANDS who win it at the death! pic.twitter.com/4D9fg1sVaT
The U20s’ success has been mirrored at U18 level, with the age group below making the bronze final of their Rugby Europe competition.
Closer links have been developed with the senior men’s team, with Netherlands head coach Lyn Jones and assistants like former Scotland fly-half Duncan Hodge imparting their wisdom on the Dutch youngsters.
“Our regional rugby at U16, U17, U18 level has really improved, we play regularly together and we are starting to see some massive steps being taken,” said Gilbert.
“It is really impressive to see where Kristoff has taken it, and it is an honour and a privilege to still be involved and contribute and be part of the pathway.
“Our local players come together for high performance training every Monday, for three hours, so we have plenty of contact time together. We are very lucky with that.”
The Netherlands warmed up for the Rugby Europe U20 Championship with a Summer Series against Hong Kong China and Belgium – and the week before the tournament began, they played as Rugby Europe Super Cup side, Delta, against their Belgium equivalent, Brussels Devils.
Delta are coached by Jones, a Welshman with vast experience in international rugby with the likes of Russia and Namibia, and the highest level of the club game in his native country.
“The knowledge is coming down from Lyn and his staff as well; we work a lot closer together than we have in the past which was still very good back in the day but now it is just up a level,” said Gilbert.
“The little things that his team bring, the micro skills and detail that we weren’t focusing on before have become key to make sure our fundamentals are really good.”
Rugby World Cup ambition
With the likes of imposing young second-row Teun Karst still playing a year young, there’s a nucleus of a squad that can compete well at the Trophy, and beyond.
With Men’s Rugby World Cup 2027 involving four more teams in an expanded 24-team line-up, the Netherlands have their sights set on making it to Australia.
“If you look at Chile and Uruguay and all those sort of teams, who have made that step already, there is a great opportunity for a country like ourselves to claim a spot at that World Cup with it going to 24 teams,” he added.
“With us doing so well this year with the U20s and the calibre of players in this team going forward, if we can keep it together and get more opportunities, I think you’ll see a big difference and you’ll see us pushing hard for one of those positions.
“If you look at Portugal, that’s our marker. That’s why when we beat them in the semi-final (in the Rugby Europe Championship 2023) we were so pleased.
“We are very similar in terms of the size of the sport; we have a lot of catching up to do to be anywhere near their national team, but this is the first step.
“Last year we got in the final against Spain, and we lost 13-8, and then this year obviously we got to the final again and went one better, so we are very, very happy.”