Rugby Union: Dutch dreamers chase respect

England present a daunting task for the minnows with so much to play for.
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The Independent Online
RUGBY REALITY may well be about to blow a raspberry into the collective face of Netherlands rugby and burst the romantic bubble that has carried them to the qualifying stages of the 1999 World Cup, but it is a fool who would patronise them.

Yes, they acknowledge that they have not a Sabine virgin's chance of emerging intact from the confrontation with England. It would be more accurate to describe them as underpuppies rather than underdogs, but no one, least of all England, is writing them off.

The England prop Jason Leonard said: "They are trying to raise the profile of rugby in the Netherlands. Look at the Italians of a few years ago and see how they have progressed to become a part of the Six Nations from next season. There is definitely a danger in talking down the Dutch. We expect them to be well drilled."

They will also be firmly screwed down by England. But they will not go down without a struggle. John (or J J) van de Esch, the Netherlands loosehead prop, knows what to expect. He is in his first season with West Hartlepool and has had his first taste of Premiership rugby. "It was against Saracens," said Van de Esch, a New Zealander who settled in Scotland seven years ago before coming south of the border. "It was a good game to play in, coming up against one of the best club sides in England."

He does not harbour any fanciful notions about tomorrow's match in Huddersfield. "It is going to be hard in the scrums," he admitted. "I just hope we achieve some sort of parity on our put-in. We have to try to be as solid as possible on our ball. But we will not concede a thing. We will jerk their chains a little bit, rattle their cage. Wind them up."

Geoff Old, a grizzled All Black, took up the onerous task of producing a competitive national team as well as taking responsibility for the development and expansion of rugby in the Netherlands two years ago. He is amazed at how they have come on. Reaching this stage of the 1999 World Cup was just not in the former flanker's plans.

"We were looking more at the 2003 tournament," said the 42-year-old, who was capped three times by his country and played in the infamous "flour bomb" Test against South Africa in New Zealand in 1981. "We have gone through a time warp in terms of progress over the last 12 to 18 months. We have climbed three or four rungs of the international rugby ladder to earn ourselves qualifying matches against England and Italy."

That fact will not be lost on England. Nor will the defensive play of the Dutch. Old promised that in that department at least, the Dutchmen will be flying into the opposition. "These guys know how to tackle," he said proudly. "OK, they are not the aggressive Zinzan Brooke breastplate tacklers but they will be tackling heart and soul. In fact, not surprisingly, we expect to be doing a lot of defending, we've been working on that. It does not mean it will stop the floodgates opening but they will be doing the best they can."

What Old wants his charges to avoid is the one-on-one battle within a war situations - prop to prop, centre to centre. "Our strength is in our performance as a team," he explained. "That is the only way we will be able to gain the respect of the opposition. If players adopt an individual role and forget their part in the team pattern, if emotion takes over then we will become weak in certain areas, certainly psychologically."

Ultimately the scoreline will be immaterial. "We have to show everyone that football is not the only game we can play," said the diminutive scrum- half and captain, Mats Marcker. "This is the biggest game in the history of Netherlands rugby. It is so bloody important." And, talking of blood, they will have to put bodies on the line rather than thumbs in the dyke.

But as long as they do that then these Netherlanders will most certainly earn the respect of their elders and betters in the rugby world.

NETHERLANDS (v England, World Cup European Qualifying Pool Two, Twickenham, Saturday): A Webber; O Winkels, R van de Walle, G Everts, G Viguurs; B Vervoort, M Marcker (capt); J J van de Esch, A Seybel, R Philippo, P Faas, R Donkers, R van de Ven, C Elisara, N Holten. Replacements: S Ramaker, R Lips, R Kofman, G Bloemstat, H Brat, T Schumacher, P Hudson.