Now that the Netherlands have been given a chance to write a new chapter in their rugby history, head coach Zane Gardiner insists they will be doing their utmost to take it.
A winner-takes-all play-off with Belgium to decide who competes in this season’s Rugby Europe Championship means they are now just 80 minutes from playing at their highest level in two decades.
Promotion to the Rugby Europe Championship comes with the added bonus that the competition also doubles as a Rugby World Cup 2023 qualification tournament.
To underline the magnitude of the match, it is being screened by the major Dutch cable sports network, Ziggo.
“It’s a massive game for both countries because of the World Cup being in France in 2023 and this is obviously a qualification tournament for that tournament. Besides that, you want to be playing Championship rugby,” said Gardiner, who has just extended his contract with Rugby Netherlands into a third year.
“It’s been 20 years for us, and we want to test ourselves against a Championship team. We want to know what it is like to be in the Championship and find out how we compare.
“Portugal were down and consistently beat us when they were in the Trophy and they have gone up and done pretty good in the Championship. Can we do something like that? We don’t know yet.
“It’s exciting to see what our young players are going to do on the day.”
Not since the Netherlands played England in the late 1990s – their only test to date against an established nation – have they been so far down the line in the Rugby World Cup qualification process.
And the last time the team played in the Rugby Europe Championship in 2002 it was called European Nations Cup Division 1A. They conceded 300 points in the five matches of that winless campaign and only scored 27 in return.
Relegation sent the team on a downward spiral to 48th in the World Rugby Men’s Rankings and during that period they yo-yoed back and forth between the third (Trophy) and fourth (Conference) divisions of the Rugby Europe pyramid.
But their fortunes changed for the better when South African Gareth Gilbert came on board as national team coach and got to work with a group of talented young players.
Gardiner has continued the forward momentum in the two years he has been in charge and the New Zealander is alive to the possibilities that Championship rugby can bring.
“One of the things we always talk about is our history as a team. I showed the players the path the team has taken,” he said.
“I think we have won one game in the Championship, ever, and the ‘for’ and ‘against’ is horrific.
“We would have got demoted the year before but it was a non-demotion year and you stayed up two years guaranteed.
“We fell down to 48th in the world until we got some solidarity under Gareth Gilbert to consistently come second to Portugal, and now, we’ve finally taken the next step to be able to get to this promotion game. It has been a long journey.
“We want to take the jersey back to the Championship, that’s the motivation of this young group,” added Gardiner.
“We played against England and took 100 points. Those opportunities don’t come now unless you are in the Championship.
“With having had consistent results in the Championship, Georgia now get to play the world champs and Scotland.
“When you play in matches like that, they are on TV and players get exposure and clubs get looking and agents come calling.
“It means these guys might get full-time rugby which is a big difference to training on an evening after you’ve worked or studied all day.”
It is 10 months since the Netherlands were confirmed as winners of the Rugby Europe Trophy, and their high stakes match with the Championship’s bottom team, Belgium, has been pushed back and back because of COVID-19 restrictions.
Rugby Europe’s decision to proceed with the play-off and keep the promotion dream alive for the Netherlands was obviously well received by Gardiner.
“You want the result to be on the field, not because something you can’t control has happened. That’s why we are really grateful to get this chance.
“Rugby Europe didn’t have to do it, they could have said the competition was null and void and we’re not having promotion and relegation.
“That would have been understandable given the current situation, where neither team has really been able to play games or train properly together.
“The guys have taken the challenge on board and we have decided not to have any excuses and build a strong bond together.
“We’re definitely going there with the intention of putting in a performance and winning.”