9 Jun 2024

Inside the rise of Netherlands women's rugby league: Part 2


European Rugby League general manager David Butler believes that the women’s game is set to boom across Europe in the next five years.

Of the 27 nations with women's teams in the IRL World Rankings, 10 of the top 19 are European and interest is intensifying with World Cups in 2026 and 2028 - the latter to be a stand along women's tournament.

England have already qualified for RLWC2026 in the Southern Hemisphere, along with Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea.

Netherlands, Ireland and Wales (Group A) and France, Greece and Serbia (Group B) are playing off for two further spots in the European World Cup Qualifiers.

Part 1: Power, pride and upholding a legacy

The winner of each pool will gain entry to RLWC2026, while the runners-up will meet in a play-off for a place at the inauguaral World Series, which will also feature a team from the Americas, Asia-Pacific and Midde East Africa.

The World Series winners will also earn a place at the World Cup.    

“Growth will be on two levels; internationally with more national federations running national teams and then at a domestic level with national competitions,” Butler said.

“Up until about five years ago, England and France were the only [European] teams playing the women's game.

"Now we have Greece, Ireland, Italy, Malta, Netherlands, Serbia, Turkey and Wales, who are all ranked internationally, with Scotland looking start activity and interest in Norway, Spain and Ukraine, and I expect more national federations to start activity.

“Domestically, we have seen competitions start in Greece, Ireland and Wales. The Greek competition is very impressive and has certainly been part of the reason for their improved performances internationally, as the players have gained more playing experience.” 

Greece v Serbia women 1Photo: Greek players celebrate a try during their 32-4 defeat of Serbia (ERL)
The sports market in European nations like the Netherlands is highly competitive, with the most popular sport being football (soccer), which has more than 1.2 million participants across the country.
Tennis, field hockey, gymnastics, and golf are all within the top 5 most popular sports, while rugby union - despite having a relatively low profile in the Netherlands - still manages to support more than 100 clubs and approximately 10,000 registered players.
Women's rugby union had its foundations at Rugby Club Wageningen in 1975, with the national team playing for the first time in 1982, and has continued to grow with no competition from rival rugby codes, such as rugby league.
This is in contrast to Australia, where there are three major football codes; Australian rules (AFL), rugby union, and rugby league, who compete for participants and supporters. 

With the Women's Rugby World Cup in 2025 and the Rugby League World Cup in 2026, the two sports in the Netherlands have begun to share their playing talent. 

Dual squad member Rixt Aerts said playing rugby league has given her confidence to make crucial in-play decisions, as well as improved her mindset when going into contact. 

Rixt Aerts Netherlands
Photo: Rixt Aerts is one of many dual code players in the Netherlands (Marta Satta)

“League is a bit harder, and you really have to stay in the fight, and because of that I think it really benefits me when I go and play union,” Aerts said.

I have played union since I was 11, so that makes it 9 years now, and I only heard about league when [fellow NRLB squad member] Hiske [Blom] asked me if I wanted to join.

I really like league at the moment, because it’s new and I can do something completely different. [NRLB coach] Brett [Davidson] has a super fun gameplan with a lot of plays, which I really like. 

“I feel like there is a lot of space for me to grow and make mistakes within the NRLB squad, which gives me a lot of faith moving forward with the sport.”

Aerts said playing league has been received quite well by union coaches, explaining that her club coach likes the fact that she is playing league, and also added that her assistant coach for Nederland Rugby believes league has been good for her development.

While she has only played three games of rugby league, Aerts is already beginning to consider the opportunities that may arise if the team continues their success. 

“If we go to the World Cup, the sport will grow, we will get more publicity [and there will be ] opportunities for players to play abroad," Aerts said.

"It will also get us more sponsors so hopefully we won’t have to pay for ourselves anymore, which would be helpful as at the moment all our trips and trainings are self-funded which is very expensive."

Ireland coach Matt Jefferson also believes that one of the biggest problems for the competition across Europe is a lack of funding. 

Ireland v Netherlands womenPhoto: Ireland defeated Netherlands 16-12 in Dublin to keep their RLWC2026 hopes alive (ERL)

“We have no money, it’s self-funded, you know what I mean. Myself and my staff put our hands in our pockets willingly, just to get us to certain stages. It’s just we have no money over here which is really stopping the growth and the games unfortunately” Jefferson said. 

Jefferson also believes that in Ireland the growth of rugby union has really started to spike due to the support of content creators and government funding.

However, he said it will take time before league is on an even footing, even if Ireland is successful in qualifying for the 2026 World Cup in the Southern Hemisphere.

“I’d like to say exponentially [that the RLWC would change rugby league in Ireland] but I honestly don’t know, like the women’s game has grown hugely in the rugby over here and they have great support from podcasts, Irish grants, and clubs,” Jefferson said.

“I don’t know if we would get that. I hope we would, I hope they would see that as 'this is a real thing, let’s get behind it', but I still see that if we make a World Cup there will still be GoFundMe pages and doing it ourselves. 

“I think we are a long way off that. I think we are one or two World Cup cycles off getting that recognition from a big sponsor, or a big government grant to back us as a sport. But it is coming. I don’t think it will be this one, but hopefully the next one if we are lucky enough to earn the right to be there.” 

Butler said European nations should not focus on putting together a team in the hope of attending a World Cup, but instead he wants them to grow their competitions from the ground up.  

I think the RLWC2021 raised the profile in Europe because the competition was so visible locally and because the competition significantly raised the standards both on and off the field” Butler said. 

“RLWC2026 will no doubt do the same but, in my opinion, the driver for a national federation starting a women's programme should not solely be about qualifying and winning a World Cup, it should be about providing a high quality, regular, and participant focussed domestic competition that engages a large number of people in our game.

“The International Rugby League Women & Girls Advisory Group have several planned projects to support national federations in growing their female activity and understanding needs of female athletes in more detail.” 

Rugby League is currently played in over 70 nations, with the highest concentration of participants being in Australia, New Zealand, United Kingdom, France, and the Pacific Islands. 

NRLB squad members looking to take their game to the next level, like Aerts, are now considering whether to try their luck in Australia, with the aim of playing in the NRLW, or going to England for a chance to play in the Women's Super League. 

“For myself, I would love the opportunity to go and play in the NRLW in Australia. as that is where the best players play” Aerts said.