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Saturday Feb 17, 2024

Driving Dutch Rugby forward - Netherlands captain Koen Bloemen talks to Rugbydump

In Rugby’s inner sanctum, there are several norms that have been adhered to for well over a century.

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Consisting largely of ten teams, most of whom were at one point a British colony, the beautiful oval ball game has witnessed a titanic struggle between the southern hemisphere’s big four (SANZAAR) and the north’s key six (Six Nations).

Trading blow after blow on the biggest stage, these ten powerhouse teams and a handful of other proud rugby nations have held a vice-like grip on the game.

Yet, away from the battlegrounds of Lansdowne Road, Twickenham, Ellis Park, and Eden Park, a bubbling layer of competitive rugby nations have been pressing the accelerator button on the elevator to the top tier of the sport.

In recent years, the likes of Portugal and Georgia have joined more established sides Japan, Fiji, Samoa and Tonga in giving the traditional tier-one nations both barrels.

Started in earnest in England’s southeast during the 2015 Rugby World Cup when Japan turned over then two-time world champion South Africa in rugby’s biggest shock result. Prior to the miracle in Brighton, one would need to go back to Samoa, downing Wales in 1991 and again in 1999.

Since then, Georgia have downed Wales in Cardiff, Portugal have defeated Fiji and Japan have bundled Scotland out of the 2019 Rugby World Cup whilst also beating then-number-one ranked Ireland at the same tournament.

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All of these results have been truly spectacular rugby moments that have captured the rugby public’s imagination as to the brave new world where the game can become a truly global phenomenon.

Taking inspiration from these victories, nations such as Spain, Poland, Germany and the Netherlands have all put in motion processes to one day compete at rugby’s top table on a regular basis.

Leading the charge for Dutch Rugby is current captain Koen Bloemen, who, along with his teammates, is two rounds deep into the ever-evolving Rugby Europe Championship.

Sitting down to discuss his rise through the ranks whilst offering key insights into the game in the Netherlands, Bloemen offered a real picture of where Dutch Rugby can get to in the coming years.

Focusing on where it all began, Bloemen paid homage to the set-up in his homeland, which laid the platform for a move to the bright lights of French rugby.

“I think we should start first in Holland; I started in the academy when I was 16, and I had to travel (to the academy) because I was 16 and couldn’t live away from home. In English-speaking countries, you go and live in the school, but we don’t have that in Holland, so I had to travel an hour and a half to get there and then an hour and a half back to get to training.

“I got in touch with the u16s there, and then for the u17s, I went to Amsterdam and played with the national training centre. Then the next season with the u18s, we did the u18 European Championship, and it was in Portugal that year.”

This opportunity to face international competition put the 6’8” second row in rugby’s shop window, where he duly caught the eye of Top 14 powerhouse Montpellier and, more specifically, coach Jean-Philippe Lacoste.

“There was a coach called Jean-Philippe Lacoste, he was the coach of Montpellier’s academy.

“He saw me and six other guys, and then we went there for a week of training in Montpellier just before the end of the season.

“It was me with another guy who stayed there for three years, learning through the French system, learning French, which was very challenging in the beginning, but I get it now and can speak French fluently now.”

Looking back on his time in the Mediterranean city, Bloemen was effusive in his praise of the calibre of rugby minds and overall talent at the club.

“Yeah, definitely, especially with all of the foreign players I had a lot of contact with. Jannie du Plessis was actually our scrum coach for one season.

“I was quite good friends with Duhan van der Merwe, who is now with Scotland; he was there that season as well.

“It’s quite fun to look back at that season now and look at all the guys who were there and say, ‘I played with him, or he trained me, so yeah, it was cool.”

A rule change in French Rugby combined with an injury would see his time in Montpellier come to a premature end.

“The last year in Montpellier, I had a big injury in my foot, so I was injured for the whole season and couldn’t play loads.

“So I couldn’t really show myself to other clubs, and also, the age gap from the Espoirs (French Rugby’s academy age category) went below what it had been. Before, it was u23s, and then it went to u21s, and I had just turned 21, so all of a sudden, instead of getting a youth contract somewhere, I had to find a professional contract somewhere without playing for the whole season.”

Undeterred, the giant lock not only went looking for an opening but barged down the door as he joined Nationale 1 side Bourg-en-Bresse.

“The coach at Bourg-en-Bresse was nice enough to let me come for a trial there in July. It was a bit late on as it was already during the preseason, and they were nice enough to give me a trial then I just showed what I could do, and they just said yes, please stay here.

“They had just come down from Pro D2; they were in the Pro D2 the season before.”

Now sixty-two games into his time with the club, Bloemen briefly gave an insight into his rugby future, saying, “At the moment, I am at the end of my contract, so I am looking for something, maybe to stay, maybe to leave but I don’t know yet.

“I have a lot of ambition, and I just want to go where I can play my best rugby and where I feel I can grow as a player and a person. If it is at Bourg-en-Bresse, then I will stay; if it is somewhere else, then I will go somewhere else.”

Returning the focus to this year’s Europe Rugby Championship, Bloemen was fresh off playing championship powerhouses Spain and Georgia in the opening two rounds.

Discussing the match with Georgia, Bloemen was at the coal face of Georgian Rugby’s traditional strength.

“They are always such a physical team to play against; in contact, they are always really strong.

“After the game, travelling back, we left Georgia at like two in the morning, so we had a flight through the night, so that was quite a tough weekend to recover from!”

Coming up short against their hosts, the Dutch showed significant progress from their previous clash with the 2023 Rugby World Cup participants. Pointing out that this result was not an outlier but becoming the norm across the championship, Bloemen explained how the gap was closing between the top teams and the rest of the league.

“The teams that were on top are progressing a lot, but the teams below are progressing even faster at the moment to close up the gap.

“You saw Belgium with their record win and us against Spain, and actually we against Georgia is actually closer as well. All the scores are just getting so much closer and tighter; you don’t see a score like 50 – 0 anymore, which is what we had last year.”

Crediting the influence of Dutch head coach, former Welsh international Lyn Jones, Bloemen discussed what elements the experienced rugby mind brought with him to the Dutch set-up.

“Yeah Lyn Jones brought a lot structure to the Dutch rugby team, we love attacking rugby in Holland, I think if you look in our national competition we have a lot of good attacking rugby.

“I think Lyn Jones has guided us more towards where we have to attack so that we don’t attack a lot in our own half but try to attack where it is important and not spend energy.

“Against big teams like Georgia or Spain, they like it when you attack from your own twenty-two so they can wait for a mistake to get the ball and then score.

So I think Lyn Jones just brought a lot of structure to Dutch Rugby, so we know how and where to play, so it’s a bit more mature rugby.”

For the senior squad to continue its rate of progression, it is crucial that the grassroots of the game are well established. In this regard, Dutch Rugby has taken significant strides forward in recent years with the establishment of four rugby academies throughout the country.

Delving into this topic, Bloemen broke down the general structure of Dutch Rugby’s setup.

“You don’t play rugby with your schools; you play rugby with your clubs. It is much more similar to the French system if you can compare it.

“You go to a club so you don’t play at a school, what they have done now is that they have put academies in every region.

“So I think we have four academies at the moment in the north, south, east and west or something like that.

“They are connected to the schools there, so you go to a special high-performance school there, and the teachers know that you are an athlete. So, for example, you don’t have to go to PE class, you don’t have to go to extra classes, and they are a bit more lenient on when you have to go training and when you have to go to school.

“So you train in the morning at the academy, so it is just guys from all different clubs. They go to the academy to get better and work on their skills, and then often, in the evening, they go to their club and train there.

“I think in the morning and in the afternoon, they train at the academy, so they do some skill sessions and extra gym sessions just to get them ready and give them the full-time program.

“I think it’s very good for Dutch Rugby, and you can see the youth teams are getting much better, so it’s a lot thanks to that as well.”

As ever in professional sports, progress, rightly or wrongly, will be deemed either a success or failure by key markers often placed by external parties. Honing in on where this Dutch team wants to get to, it is clear that whatever pressure it placed on them from the outside, their internal ambition far outweighs it.

“I think definitely qualifying for the World Cup is the next step for Dutch Rugby. When we got into the European Championship, that was a big milestone. I think it was three years ago that we got in here.

“During that time, we have gotten more and more comfortable. For example, the first year was just trying to survive, and it was also during covid, so it was a bit of a weird situation.

“I feel we are growing a lot in confidence, and I definitely think the next step will be to qualify for a World Cup.”

For these goals to be achieved and built upon, it is abundantly clear that the sport will need to appeal to a wide audience. Pointing to a recent example, Bloemen made the point that the game already has a strong support base that appears to be expanding.

“I definitely think so, if you take for example the Cheetahs (South African franchise) game against Pau (Top 14 side),  I think it sold it out, there was six thousand people (at the game) which is a record for Dutch Rugby.

“So a lot of people have an appetite for higher level rugby, so seeing famous players coming here, I think Dutch Rugby is ready for that.

“Also, we just have to play more games. If you look at this season, we are playing five games now, and our last game was the last of last year’s Championship.

“We haven’t played during the World Cup, so our last game was before the World Cup, so I think for us at Dutch Rugby, we have to play a few more games to get guys more experienced with higher level rugby for them to develop.

Hosting the Cheetahs’ home European games brought a level of fanfare to Amsterdam that captured the wider rugby public’s attention. In attendance that day were Rugby World Cup winners Siya Kolisi and Damien Willemse both of whom are two of the most recognisable faces in the game.

Rather unsurprisingly, given the Netherlands’ links to South Africa, the current squad possesses a few key South African influences. Explaining just what these players bring to the men in orange, Bloemen said, “I think they give another perspective on rugby than the Dutch guys. For example, Robbie Coetzee he has been everywhere, I think he has been in a training squad for South Africa and he has been involved a lot in South Africa and he has been to America, so he has seen a lot of things and experienced a lot of things.

“To have him here in the Netherlands, he gives a lot of experience to guys around him so I think he can help a lot for the other hookers around him, he can help the props around him with their scrummaging because he has seen stuff.

“So I think it is very important for Dutch Rugby to get that experience back to the Netherlands.

“We also have Willie du Plessis, who is a great player and a flyhalf; when he comes in, he is such a nice guy and tries to help people by giving them advice like ‘maybe look at this, maybe look at that’, so guys like that coming from other countries coming and sharing their experience is such a good thing for Dutch Rugby.”

Concluding the point on what is the next step for his team, Bloemen was asked what it would take for the Netherlands to win the Europe Rugby Championship. In this regard, as with the rest of the conversation, he was clear in his understanding of what needed to be done.

“I think in the end, you have to beat Georgia if you want to win the Championship.

“It’s a bit of everything. We need more resources, more time, more games, so I think it is a mix of everything.

“We are a very young team if you look in terms of our time in the European Championship. So I think we just need more time, more game time and more experience at this higher level of rugby.

“In the end, even when you look at South Africa, they were a colony of ours, and they are big boys. The Dutch people are actually the tallest people in the world on average, so we can have that size if it becomes professional and people take it seriously from the beginning.

“So we can have the attributes to perform well at a higher level, but we just need time, more game time and experience.”

Next up for Bloemen and his teammates is a clash with Germany on Sunday in Amsterdam at 1.30 pm local time.

Offering a final nugget of information with a brief preview of his opponents, the 25-year-old said, “They are very big boys in the front five, and they love their mauls.

“Looking at the Spain game, they tried to do a lot of mauls against Spain, that’s the biggest part. Just getting that physical part right against them and trying to stop that maul is the biggest threat from them.”

Rugby fans can follow the Rugby Europe Championship for free via live stream on both Rugbypass TV and the Rugby Europe Championship.

 

 

 

 

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