Flying Dutchman who makes Edinburgh rock
Two months before he officially becomes an honorary Scot, Tim Visser has European glory in his sights, as he tells Simon Turnbull
Not too many people were taking notice when Tim Visser first stepped on to the top-flight rugby union stage. It was on a Friday night in September 2006 and all eyes were on Newcastle Falcons' ill-starred fly-half as he lay stricken by his latest injury blow on the Kingston Park pitch.
Still, after Jonny Wilkinson was carted off to hospital suffering from knee-ligament damage, his 19-year-old replacement proceeded to make his considerable presence felt. With the North Stand clock ticking down the final few seconds, the debutant Visser got himself into Flying Dutchman mode, taking a feed from Matt Burke and diving over in the left corner to clinch a 20-19 win against Worcester.
"That feels like a long time ago," Visser reflects, five and a half years on, sitting in a West Stand suite at Murrayfield Stadium. "It feels like another life."
The 6ft 4in, 17st winger scored again on his first start for Newcastle, away to Saracens nine days later, but over the next three years the first professional rugby union player from the Netherlands was unable to establish himself in the English Premiership. He was loaned out to Northampton, when they were in the second tier, and to Darlington Mowden Park and Tynedale.
All of which will give the 24-year-old reason to savour the big occasion as he walks out in front of a record crowd at Murrayfield this afternoon, with a Heineken Cup quarter-final ahead of him and an international career on the horizon.
Visser lines up against Toulouse on the left wing for an Edinburgh XV who have illuminated the continent's showpiece competition this season with their dynamic, free-scoring play – and who have sold more than 32,000 tickets in advance, guaranteeing the highest ever attendance for a Scottish club on home soil, for what is being billed as the biggest ever club match involving a Scottish side.
The Dutchman bagged four tries as the band of underdogs guided by former Ireland scrum-half Michael Bradley won five of their six pool matches to become the first Scottish club to earn a home quarter-final in the Heineken Cup. It was his dramatic 77th-minute touchdown and Greig Laidlaw's conversion that snatched a stunning 48-47 victory from a humdinger of a home encounter with Racing Métro in which Edinburgh were not just on the ropes but toppling over them at 44-20 down.
The top try-scorer in the RaboDirect Pro12 (the Celtic League of old) for the past two seasons, Visser has built on the early promise he showed as a fledgling Falcon since moving up the A1 to join Edinburgh when Andy Robinson was still in charge in 2009.
He qualifies for Scotland on residency grounds on 12 June and the introduction of the serial finisher into the Caledonian national side – he will be eligible for the last two of their summer tour games, against Fiji and Samoa – can be expected to lift some of the gloom lingering over Robinson and his squad after their Six Nations whitewash.
"If I keep up my performance, then hopefully I'll get a chance," Visser says. "I'm hugely excited about it."
The man from Zeewolde already enjoys a high profile in Scottish sport and has become a star turn in the Heineken Cup, yet his appearance in the last four of the competition sponsored by a Dutch institution will attract scant interest in his homeland.
"I'm the only professional rugby player from Holland, apart from my brother [Sep, a centre-cum-wing who is also on Edinburgh's books], so people will know about it within the rugby world there," Visser says. "Outside that, the interest is very minimal. It's not a sport that gets any attention in Holland."
It is thanks to his father that Visser – a close friend of the Newcastle United and Netherlands goalkeeper Tim Krul – has become a Dutch pioneer in rugby union's European Cup rather than the next Dennis Bergkamp or Johan Cruyff in the football version. Marc Visser won 67 caps and captained the Dutch national side in the oval-ball game.
"I grew up in the rugby world in Holland," Tim says. "You almost look down on football – the ethics there, especially in Holland, with the hooliganism and the way they treat referees. The code of conduct in rugby is a lot more noble and I wanted to be part of that. You always want to be like your role models and my dad played rugby, and his friends and their sons. My friends started playing. You just sort of get sucked into the whole rugby world and never look back."
It was by chance that Visser got sucked into the mainstream professional rugby world. At 16 he was preparing to embark on a course at the Johan Cruyff Institute of Sport Studies in Amsterdam to study economics while attempting to further his rugby ambitions, when he was spotted by Newcastle players Joe Shaw and James Grindal in the Amsterdam Sevens.
They alerted John Fletcher, Newcastle's academy director at the time, and he arranged for Visser to move to the north-east of England and complete his education at Barnard Castle School, the County Durham alma mater of Rob Andrew, the Underwood brothers and Mathew Tait.
"It was tough at first, going into the private school system when you're from liberal Holland," Visser says. "That was a challenge. But the rugby was brilliant."
The Dutch boy played his way into the England schools team – not as a fleet-footed winger but as a flanker. "Newcastle signed me as a flanker," Visser recalls. "I played on the flank for England Schools, and in the second row actually. Jordan Turner-Hall and Joe Simpson were in the same team."
The former England schoolboy star was a double try-scorer for the Barbarians in a 38-32 victory against the senior England team at Twickenham in May last year. If the future Flying Scot can build up a try-scoring head of steam at Murrayfield today, he could be 80 minutes away from a return to English rugby HQ for the 2012 Heineken Cup final.
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