Former Netherlands test prop Sylke Haverkorn is used to overcoming the obstacles in her way – whether that’s gender stereotyping, geographical challenges or a language barrier – so revitalising the Dutch women’s national team is a task she is taking to with relish.
Appointed as the side’s new head coach in September, Haverkorn comes to the job with a huge amount of coaching pedigree despite having only called time on a 10-year international playing career in 2016 because of a knee injury.
She is the head coach at Rugbyende Utrechtste Studenten, the club she won five consecutive premier division titles with as a player (2012-16), following an earlier spell coaching the men’s team Rugbyclub Nieuwegein, and is also head coach of the Turkey women's national sevens team, an opportunity that came about as part of her World Rugby Level 3 coaching qualification.
Perhaps her proudest achievement to date, though, is becoming the first female coach to win the Ereklasse, the Netherlands’ premier men’s division, with RC DIOK Leiden, in part because of the criticism that her appointment as forwards coach received.
“In the beginning a lot of men, old members, were negative, saying how can a female coach the men but we became champions, and everybody apologised, of course,” she told World Rugby.
“It was the first time in 19 years that they’d won it. From there, Rugby Netherlands asked me to become head coach for the women’s national team and, naturally, I was delighted and very proud to accept."
Brought up in the far east of the Netherlands, in Enschede, the two-and-a-half-hour journey to training in Amsterdam when she was playing was the furthest distance covered by any of the squad. But that was nothing compared to the 22-hour commute some of the Turkish women face to attend get-togethers.
Despite this and the lack of English speakers, Haverkorn managed to keep Turkey in Rugby Europe’s Women's Sevens Trophy, no mean feat as they’d only won promotion the previous season.
“One big thing was the language because none of the girls could speak English, so I had a translator 24-7,” she explained. “If the referee said to leave the ball or release, they didn’t understand, and we used to get a lot of yellow cards. But we managed to educate them and help them, and things improved.”
Far more geographically compact, the Netherlands has a high concentration of talent that Haverkorn is eager to tap into.
She also wants to feed off the enthusiasm that Rugby World Cup 2019 generated in her country through terrestrial television coverage.
“I gave a clinic to some kids in schools and a lot of them were dressed in South African shirts. Because it is now on terrestrial television, a lot of them watched the World Cup,” she said.
“When I started, at university, that was not the case, nobody knew what rugby was; I thought it was American Football but that has all changed so much. A lot of the kids know the rules and the numbers of young players now playing rugby is huge.
“There is a lot of talent here and, on 9 November, we had our first open training session for girls.”
Making the most of that player pool is one of Haverkorn’s long-term aims. She is building foundations that should stand the national team in good stead for years to come, introducing a women’s U18s team and putting plans in place for more national age-grade teams.
The upcoming historic two-test series against Hong Kong is a sign that another of her wishes – more competitive fixtures for the national team – is becoming a reality, thanks to the support of Rugby Netherlands.
“We’re rebuilding the team, I think there are only one or two players left from when I played, and I think it’s important to get a good spread of age and experience," she revealed.
“We’ve now trained for six Saturdays and these games will enable us to see where the team is standing, what we need to fine-tune and change. We need to see which combinations play together and see if the talent we have comes out under pressure, in games.”
Once one of the powerhouses of the women’s international game, the Netherlands are now ranked 13th and haven’t appeared at a Rugby World Cup since 2002.
However, they will get the chance to end what will be a 19-year wait by the time New Zealand 2021 comes along if they win the Rugby Europe Women’s Championship next year.
By then, Haverkorn hopes that her team will be in a position to challenge Spain for the title and, as a result, progress to the European RWC 2021 qualification tournament involving Ireland, Italy and Scotland in September.
“I see a lot of possibilities,” the ever-positive Haverkorn stated. “It takes time, of course. You cannot change it in one year or one season.
“If you want to compete against countries that are professional like England, it is difficult, but nothing is impossible – it’s what you put in. I know this, I was a member of the Dutch team that once beat France.
“If we put a lot of effort in and have more test matches, we can improve really quickly.
“Our aim, this season, is to beat Spain in the European Championship. If we do that, we’ll be in the qualification tournament for New Zealand. I played against Spain a lot and it is always a tough match, but, as I said, nothing is impossible.”
With that can-do attitude and the enthusiasm Haverkorn has for rugby, “I love it, it’s what drives me”, the future may be bright and it may be orange after all.