Dutch women rebuilding under former test prop

A Championship winner in both men’s and women’s rugby in the Netherlands and a former test prop, Sylke Haverkorn has now been tasked with rebuilding the country’s women’s 15s team as the newly-appointed head coach.

Former Netherlands test prop Sylke Haverkorn is used to overcoming the obstacles in her way – whether that’s gender stereotyping, geographical challenges or a language barrier – so revitalising the Dutch women’s national team is a task she is taking to with relish.

Appointed as the side’s new head coach in September, Haverkorn comes to the job with a huge amount of coaching pedigree despite having only called time on a 10-year international playing career in 2016 because of a knee injury.

She is the head coach at Rugbyende Utrechtste Studenten, the club she won five consecutive premier division titles with as a player (2012-16), following an earlier spell coaching the men’s team Rugbyclub Nieuwegein, and is also head coach of the Turkey women's national sevens team, an opportunity that came about as part of her World Rugby Level 3 coaching qualification.


Perhaps her proudest achievement to date, though, is becoming the first female coach to win the Ereklasse, the Netherlands’ premier men’s division, with RC DIOK Leiden, in part because of the criticism that her appointment as forwards coach received.

“In the beginning a lot of men, old members, were negative, saying how can a female coach the men but we became champions, and everybody apologised, of course,” she told World Rugby.

“It was the first time in 19 years that they’d won it. From there, Rugby Netherlands asked me to become head coach for the women’s national team and, naturally, I was delighted and very proud to accept."

Brought up in the far east of the Netherlands, in Enschede, the two-and-a-half-hour journey to training in Amsterdam when she was playing was the furthest distance covered by any of the squad. But that was nothing compared to the 22-hour commute some of the Turkish women face to attend get-togethers.

Despite this and the lack of English speakers, Haverkorn managed to keep Turkey in Rugby Europe’s Women's Sevens Trophy, no mean feat as they’d only won promotion the previous season.

“One big thing was the language because none of the girls could speak English, so I had a translator 24-7,” she explained. “If the referee said to leave the ball or release, they didn’t understand, and we used to get a lot of yellow cards. But we managed to educate them and help them, and things improved.”

Talent pool

Far more geographically compact, the Netherlands has a high concentration of talent that Haverkorn is eager to tap into.

She also wants to feed off the enthusiasm that Rugby World Cup 2019 generated in her country through terrestrial television coverage.

“I gave a clinic to some kids in schools and a lot of them were dressed in South African shirts. Because it is now on terrestrial television, a lot of them watched the World Cup,” she said.

“When I started, at university, that was not the case, nobody knew what rugby was; I thought it was American Football but that has all changed so much. A lot of the kids know the rules and the numbers of young players now playing rugby is huge.

“There is a lot of talent here and, on 9 November, we had our first open training session for girls.”

Making the most of that player pool is one of Haverkorn’s long-term aims. She is building foundations that should stand the national team in good stead for years to come, introducing a women’s U18s team and putting plans in place for more national age-grade teams.

Historic series

The upcoming historic two-test series against Hong Kong is a sign that another of her wishes – more competitive fixtures for the national team – is becoming a reality, thanks to the support of Rugby Netherlands.

“We’re rebuilding the team, I think there are only one or two players left from when I played, and I think it’s important to get a good spread of age and experience," she revealed. 

“We’ve now trained for six Saturdays and these games will enable us to see where the team is standing, what we need to fine-tune and change. We need to see which combinations play together and see if the talent we have comes out under pressure, in games.”

Once one of the powerhouses of the women’s international game, the Netherlands are now ranked 13th and haven’t appeared at a Rugby World Cup since 2002.

However, they will get the chance to end what will be a 19-year wait by the time New Zealand 2021 comes along if they win the Rugby Europe Women’s Championship next year.

Mission possible

By then, Haverkorn hopes that her team will be in a position to challenge Spain for the title and, as a result, progress to the European RWC 2021 qualification tournament involving Ireland, Italy and Scotland in September.

“I see a lot of possibilities,” the ever-positive Haverkorn stated. “It takes time, of course. You cannot change it in one year or one season.

“If you want to compete against countries that are professional like England, it is difficult, but nothing is impossible – it’s what you put in. I know this, I was a member of the Dutch team that once beat France.

“If we put a lot of effort in and have more test matches, we can improve really quickly.

“Our aim, this season, is to beat Spain in the European Championship. If we do that, we’ll be in the qualification tournament for New Zealand. I played against Spain a lot and it is always a tough match, but, as I said, nothing is impossible.”

With that can-do attitude and the enthusiasm Haverkorn has for rugby, “I love it, it’s what drives me”, the future may be bright and it may be orange after all.

The first all-female citing commissioner team at the HSBC France Women's Sevens 2019
Women's News Tournament News Women in Rugby
Zamboulis refuses to revel in lengthening list of firsts
Citing commissioner Danae Zamboulis discusses her career in rugby, from Greece to Dubai via Merseyside, as she prepares for the Emirates Airline Dubai Rugby Sevens at 7he Sevens Stadium.
Oceania Rugby Women's Championship 2019: Fijiana celebrate
Women's Sevens Feature News Tournament News Women in Rugby
'It is the biggest achievement of our lives'
Sevens stars Rusila Nagasau and Lavenia Tinai reveal what being part of the first Fijiana team to qualify for a Rugby World Cup in 15s means to them and the impact it has already had on women's rugby in the country.
Netherlands and Hong Kong women's 15s
World rankings Women's News Women in Rugby
Historic highs for Hong Kong and Fiji women
Hong Kong and Fiji are up to all-time highs in the World Rugby Women's Rankings, while Samoa drop to their lowest ever rating after losing their Rugby World Cup 2021 qualifier to the Fijians.
A Try for Change
Women's Feature News Women in Rugby
'For us it's about empowering young girls'
Fatma El-kindiy talks to World Rugby about 'A Try for Change', a pilot programme in Botswana designed to encourage young women to pick up a rugby ball.
Fiji qualify for Rugby World Cup 2021
Women's News Tournament News Women in Rugby
Fiji qualify for Rugby World Cup 2021
Fijiana have qualified for their first Rugby World Cup after beating Samoa in the final round of the Oceania Rugby Women's Championship 2019 in Lautoka, Fiji.
Selica Winiata at Black Ferns training session
Women's Feature News Tournament News Women in Rugby
World Series selection quicker than Winiata expected
Rugby World Cup winner Selica Winiata will take another step on her officiating journey when she travels to Dubai and Cape Town in December.
Oceania Rugby Women's Championship 2019: trophy lift
Women's News Tournament News Women in Rugby
Black Ferns Development XV cruise to Oceania title
New Zealand convincingly stamped their mark as champions of the Oceania Rugby Women’s Championship after a comprehensive victory over Papua New Guinea, while Fiji and Samoa will meet again on Saturday to determine the region's Rugby World Cup 2021 qualifier.
Sylke Haverkorn
Women's Feature News Tournament News Women in Rugby
Dutch women rebuilding under former test prop
A Championship winner in both men’s and women’s rugby in the Netherlands and a former test prop, Sylke Haverkorn has now been tasked with rebuilding the country’s women’s 15s team as the newly-appointed head coach.
Oceania Rugby Women's Championship 2019: Fijiana v Samoa
Women's News Tournament News Women in Rugby
Fiji move a step closer to Rugby World Cup qualification
Fiji power past Samoa in the second round of the Oceania Rugby Women's Championship to boost their chances of Rugby World Cup 2021 qualification, while the Black Ferns Development XV rack up another half-century.
World Rugby Women's Sevens Series Qualifier 2018
Women's Feature News Tournament News Women in Rugby
Pienaar aims to help improve women's pathways in South Africa
Having been awarded a place on the inaugural Women’s Sport Leadership Academy for High Performance Coaches, former Springbok Women's Sevens captain Marithy Pienaar discusses her transition into coaching and her hopes for the future.