7 Jun 2024

Inside the rise of Netherlands women's rugby league - Part 1

By Paige Schouw

Power, pride and upholding a legacy.

That’s what both Italy and the Netherlands were trying to achieve when pitted head-to-head in Mogliano Veneto on their respective National Holiday long-weekends - Italian Liberation Day long weekend and Kings Day, the biggest day of the year for the Netherlands.

The crowd had a unique buzz to it as the supporters of the two underdeveloped rugby league nations sang their native songs and chanted in an attempt to carry their team to success and place in the European World Cup Qualifying tournament. 

Women’s sport is one of the fastest growing industries in the world, but in European countries rugby league it is quite low in the pecking order compared with the Pacific.

Rugby league has never been a competitive or social sport option within the Netherlands, with no women’s domestic competition on offer to-date. 

So how did the Nederlandse National Rugby League Bond (NRLB) go from having nothing to securing a spot in the 2024 European Women’s World Cup Qualifiers? 

The journey began in December 2023, when the National Women’s Rugby League squad was formed from current rugby union players with the hopes of attending the 2026 Rugby League World Cup in the Southern Hemisphere.

It was a race against time, as to be eligible to participate in the World Cup Qualifiers the team needed to become internationally ranked and to do so they must play at least one sanctioned international match. 

After many calls and back and forth with other countries, including Malta, Serbia and Turkey, the Netherlands managed to secure a game against Greece. 

Netherlands women polosPhoto: The history making Netherlands players and staff (Facebook)

NRLB legacy player number one Stephanie van Diepen said the game against Greece was a great opportunity for the girls to play an international test match after only having trained for two months prior. 

“It was really great. We went there with two teams and Greece also had two teams, so we played two matches," van Diepen said.

“It was really nice to have all the girls who were there from the beginning together there to play.” 

After earning 18th place in the IRL World Rankings, the NRLB got to work. With a squad of 35 women and only two of whom had ever played league before, it meant that they were having to learn on the go.

They had to switch their mindset from their rugby union background to understanding the rules and regulations of rugby league. This was no easy feat, as although the skills are similar there are a multitude of conflicting rules within the two sports. 

“It was hard to change from union to league because of the rule differences, but for a first game we did really well” van Diepen said.

Video: Interview with NRLB legacy player number one Stephanie van Diepen

In February 2024, it was announced that there was only one spot available in Group A of the World Cup Qualifiers following the withdrawal of Malta and Serbia due to financial pressures and lack of funding available. 

This meant that the two lowest ranked teams would have to play off in an elimination match, hosted by the higher ranked nation, with the winner progressing to join Ireland and Wales in Group A.

'Creating a massive wave'

Italy had more international experience, having been present on the women’s world stage since 2018. Within that timeframe Italy had played eight international matches and recorded two wins.

With the Netherlands having played just one international match, against Greece, they were positioned as the clear underdogs as no one knew what to expect.

NRLB Head Coach Matt Rigby said before the match that he was looking forward to the game against Italy as it was an opportunity to assess the level of growth within the playing group since their first ever league match in December.   

“We’re really excited for this opportunity to compete in the RLWC qualifiers, and we want to go as far as we possibly can in this competition. Italy will provide a very stern test for us, and we will relish going into this one as the underdogs” Rigby said.

The Netherlands came out firing, scoring two tries through Linneke Gevers and Kaylee Geerlings within the first nine minutes, although Italy returned serve almost immediately with Marvin Severgnini scoring a try off the back of a scrum win in the 12th minute. 

The game appeared set to be a close contest but the NRLB proved too strong and went on to win 56-6, eliminating Italy and progressing into the World Cup Qualifiers.

NRLB President Daan van Rossum believes that this win not only made a strong statement to the world, but it potentially could change rugby league in the Netherlands forever. 

NRLB Head Coach Matt Rigby, Stephanie van Diepen, NRLB President Daan van Rossam
Photo: NRLB coach Matt Rigby (L), Stephanie van Diepen and NRLB President Daan van Rossam (Monischa Hiermons).

“I think it could be a complete game changer for us [going to the World Cup]. We are already starting to see it, companies are knocking on the door, clubs are willing to help out especially the union clubs from where the girls come from and regularly play,” van Rossum said. 

“So, the doors are opening up for us. We see boyfriends of the girls that play union who are now like ‘oh this is pretty cool’ so they are jumping on board.

“I think beating Italy we shocked the world; I saw podcasts from France and England reporting on it.

"Some people talk about a ripple in the pond, we created a massive wave, so I think surfs up, so we’ve got to ride it”.

However, for the Netherlands players, their winning high was short lived as they only had a two-week turnaround to prepare and head back into the battle for a potential World Cup spot when they faced Ireland in Dublin. 

Game growing in Ireland

Much like the Netherlands, Ireland is still a new country when it comes to rugby league, with their head coach Matt Jefferson noting that up until this year, they have only had two to three women’s club teams on offer. 

“This year we are at four teams which is quite big for us, we also have a sister team over in West London, called the West Warriors who just formed so they are going to come over and play a few exhibition games,” Jefferson said.

“So, from where we started three or four years ago where it was one verse one, up to four, to five now with the touring side it’s pretty good”.  

The game was make or break for Ireland, who were coming off a 28-10 loss against Wales, with the first placed teams in Group A and Group B - featuring France, Greece and Serbia - winning entry to RLWC2026 and the second-placed teams playing off for a berth at the inaguaral World Series and a second chance to qualify. 

As a result, each team must win at least one game to have a chance of accruing enough points on for-and-against to earn a place in the play-off and with Ireland having lost their first game against Wales, they needed a win to keep their chances alive. 

From the first run and initial impact, the crowd at Donnybrook Stadium knew they were in for a physical match and just 12 minutes into the contest Ireland drew first blood through hooker Meg Preston, as two NRLB players were lefft grasping at their bloodied faces.

Nethelands fans
Photo: Netherlands fans show their passion (Monischa Hiermons).

A head collision while trying to make the tackle split both players open, leaving halfback Rixt Aerts with a broken nose and both players ruled out of the match after failing head injury assessments (HIAs). 

With two of their key players out of the match, the Netherlands quickly readjusted and six minutes later NRLB captain Vera van der Zwan bounced out of dummy half, scoring in the left corner. 

NRLB fullback Nicole Kennedy then put her team in front for the first time in the match when she sliced open the defence to score under the posts in the 33rd minute.

However, the excitement within the Nederlandse camp didn't last long as lock Lisa Berding was sin binned in the 38th minute, leaving the team down two crucial play makers after the loss of Aerts. 

Leading 8-6 at halftime, the Nederlandse had to play eight minutes of the second half with 12 players until sin binned Berding returned to the field and Ireland took advantage of the overlap in players, scoring a try in the 43rd minute. 

The NRLB did not give in and second-rower Jessica Kennedy found a gap in the defence to equalise in the 59th minute.

The nerves of the crowd grew as the clock ticked down, with both teams struggling to find each other’s weaknesses, but it was Ireland who came away with the monumental win over the Netherlands, with five-eighth Storm Cobain scoring to snatch a 16-12 win and keep their 2026 World Cup dream alive. 

However, for the Netherlands, their World Cup dream isn’t over yet as they still have to play Wales on June 22 and a win would see them qualify for RLWC2026 if they finish top of the Group A or claim a place in the play-off against the runner-up of Group B.   

“They’re a great side and full credit to them they played really well. I was panicking for a little while, our dream was on the line, but it was a cracking game – I’d love to play them again,” Jefferson told the European Rugby League website.

“I’ll be helping Wales any way I can so we can keep our hopes alive. It’s out of our hands and we’ll prepare as if we are still playing in the competition. Fingers crossed it’s us against Greece in October.”