Three young Dutch women who chose to stay in New Zealand when Covid-19 struck, are striving to make their mark in the Farah Palmer Cup before establishing professional rugby careers.
Lisa Egberts and Lynn Koelman hadn’t met before becoming roommates last year in Tauranga, half a world away from their homes in the Netherlands.
The two young women, aged just 17 and 19 respectively at the time, wanted a taste of New Zealand rugby, so came over to the Inside Running Academy, a full-time, live-in rugby academy in the Bay of Plenty.
Egberts, a Dutch sevens representative, began her five-month stint in January 2019, while Koelman, who’s played fifteens for her national team, followed her younger brother to New Zealand in May.
After experiencing the Bay of Plenty rugby set-up, Egberts and Koelman resolved to return this year for a crack at Farah Palmer Cup selection.
Encouraged by Egberts to apply to the academy, 19-year old Esra van Ramele joined the pair in the Bay at the start of this year. And all three opted to stick out the global pandemic here rather than return home when Covid chaos struck in March.
In what sounds like something of an idyllic lockdown for van Ramele and Egberts, they spent their Level 4 time with around seven other players in the academy accommodation at Mount Maunganui, training with their bubble at Blake Park across the road.
Each young woman had the blessing of their parents, and the gamble to stay on the other side of the world to pursue their rugby passions paid off.
At a time where global sport at any level was largely on hold, the trio were able to complete a successful club season for Mount Sports and then earn selection for the Farah Palmer Cup.
Egberts and van Ramele, who are both halfbacks (although van Ramele also plays in midfield) are turning out for Bay of Plenty, while Koelman opted to move to North Harbour on loan rather than battle for game time behind Black Ferns hooker Luka Connor in the Volcanix squad. Koelman’s brother, Dave, played for the North Harbour U19s last season.
The Netherlands may be a small rugby nation, but it has long been a pioneer in the women’s game.
The Dutch played their first international in 1982, years before many of the now more established countries; they took part in “Rugby Fest” in Christchurch in 1990, which is seen as a pre-cursor to the Women’s World Cup, and were the first to establish a talent ID project and professional programme when sevens was announced as an Olympic sport back in 2011.
Van Ramele, an international at both sevens and fifteens, says the differences between rugby in New Zealand and the Netherlands is huge and she’s already seen her game improve.
“It’s much more physical and faster, and even though rugby as a whole is so much bigger here, it seems like a small community and everyone is so kind and welcoming,” she says. The cultural aspect of the club game has also been an eye opener: “It’s pretty cool to have had waiata sung or seen different haka when you go up to the clubrooms for a feed afterwards.”
Bay of Plenty has one of the strongest squads on paper this year, with more current Black Ferns and Black Ferns Sevens players than any other team.
Van Ramele is enjoying being able to absorb all she can from the likes of Renee Wickcliffe, Les Elder and Kelly Brazier, rather than having to be the “experienced” player in a team. “They’re so advanced and play so fast, they think quickly and give us a lot of feedback,” she says.
Egberts agrees the opportunity to pick the brains of some of the world’s best players is huge for their development. “It’s crazy to have watched these players on TV and now being able to train and play with idols who are such great examples for us to learn from,” she enthuses.
While the two halfbacks will have the luxury of playing alongside some of the biggest names in the game, for Koelman – who played water polo for 14 years and only took up rugby three seasons ago -the challenge is much different.
North Harbour has a very young, inexperienced team, and after playing in the championship for the past few seasons are now tackling the likes of Auckland – due to the Covid-induced introduction of north and south pools.
After conceding 14 tries in their opening game against Counties, Koelman knows Harbour are well and truly up against it. But she says that also brings the opportunity to make rapid improvement as a team and individually.
“Bay of Plenty wasn’t the team it is now five years ago, so it’s exciting to be part of a growing side because we can set goals for every game and tick them off,” she says. “Yes, it will be tough, but you’re playing against the best in the world every week, so that gives us a chance to focus on the growth of the team.”
All three “Dutchies” would eventually like to become professional players in Europe, where the French and English competitions have a more established professional game for women.
But at this stage, they have designs on staying in New Zealand for another year. That will be dependent, of course, on visa extensions or changes. But they know if they choose to head home at the end of the FPC, they may not be able to get back into the country next year.
But with the sunny attitude of teenagers living their rugby dreams, Egberts and van Ramele seem somewhat relaxed about the prospect of staying on the other side of the world from family for Christmas and beyond.
“I can’t make any plans so right now I want to represent Bay of Plenty, go with the flow and live in the moment,” says Egberts.
As Koelman, their ever-so-slightly older countrywoman says: “Even just to be playing rugby is a luxury at the moment, so the worst-case scenario is I pack my bags and go home. It’s hardly a bad thing.”