Inge Visser, the Dutch farm girl rearing Australia’s next flock
Photo: Red Bandana / Karen Watson
A new dawn in Australian rugby begins this afternoon with the start of the Buildcorp Super W, a high-profile women’s XV’s competition that puts the country’s best female players on the map, and firmly in line with the other football codes that have already embraced the increasing numbers of women playing and excelling in their chosen sports.
Five teams, aligned with the Super Rugby franchises that make up the elite level of the men’s game in Australia (the Western Force brand makes a welcome return despite the recent demise of their male counterparts), will battle it out over the next five weeks, before the inaugural grand final to be played on the weekend of April 20th.
Four of the ten round robin matches will be played as curtain raisers to Super Rugby games – one each in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra respectively – and all games will be shown on delay by FoxSports, with one game per week to be broadcast live on RUGBY.com.au.
The endgame is to provide a high-quality competition that will fast-track the burgeoning talent around the country towards Wallaroos selection, with a view to producing a national side strong enough to win the 2021 Women’s Rugby World Cup.
But while the 150 initial players named across the five squads contains a bevy of future test hopefuls, there is a healthy dose of experience added to the mix as well, with Wallaroos such as Ash Hewson, Emily Robinson, Gracie Hamilton, Trilleen Pomare and Nareta Marsters all set to feature. In fact, 15 of Australia’s 2017 Women’s Rugby World Cup squad will be on display, but they aren’t the only international stars bringing their talents to the table.
At 34-years-old, Inge Visser will be one of the elder stateswomen of the Super W. But the former Netherlands international offers a wealth of experience and knowledge from her 15 years of playing all around the world, and as vice-captain of New South Wales Women, she can provide a vital mentoring role for the young talent around her that are also hoping to lift their game to the highest peaks of the sport.
But how did a woman from a tiny island on the tip of the Netherlands in northern Europe, end up playing rugby for New South Wales you ask? Well, it’s just that familiar tale of girl discovers rugby, girl discovers boy through rugby, girl moves to the other side of the world to be with boy and fills her days shearing sheep, then girl and boy break up but girl stays and trains with the local men’s team, meets another boy, and oh, there’s a Rugby World Cup in there as well. You know, that one.
It might not surprise you, but growing up on an island that consists largely of sand dunes and farmland, and has four villages and a population of just over 3,500 people, doesn’t provide the most obvious natural pathway to sporting achievement.
Situated some 15 kilometres off the north coast of the Netherlands, Ameland is one of the chain of West Frisian Islands that separate the mainland from the North Sea, and an area known for it’s agriculture, and as a popular holiday spot for the vacationing Dutch. It was here that Inge Visser spent her first 20 years and somehow, fell in love with rugby.
As a nation, the Netherlands has a rich history across a variety of sports. They have produced some of the finest soccer players to have ever played the game, reaching three World Cup finals and becoming European champions in 1988. Their men’s and women’s hockey teams can boast nine World Cup wins and three Olympic gold medals between them, and they’ve also won gold for volleyball, cycling, swimming, rowing and more. While their historical speed skating exploits were only enhanced by their recent performances at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics in Korea, where they dominated the rink with a 20-medal haul.
Well, if I told you that korfball – I’d never heard of it either – has ten times the number of registered players in the Netherlands than the game they play in heaven, you might get some idea of it’s place in the national sporting landscape. Which just makes it all the more remarkable that Inge (pronounced Ing-a, as in singer) should have happened across it in the first place, even at the relatively late age of 19.
A self-confessed fitness fanatic with a competitive nature, she had always loved sport. But when she eventually got to try out rugby, there was no looking back, and to say her progress was rapid is an understatement. She takes up the story…
“A friend of mine did a Sports Education course at school, and she was starting up girl’s teams on the island,” she explained to Behind the Ruck earlier this week. “I played soccer with some of those girls but then my friend said ‘You should come and play rugby, it’s really something for you’ because I’d done a bit of judo and I was pretty competitive. So I went down to the beach training and I just loved it straight away.
“There was a coach there from the Dutch team and he just picked me and it went very quickly from there into a competition and then the national team. I was in the north of the Netherlands and for Dutch team training I had to travel two hours to get to the city, and for the Netherlands that’s a big distance!”
But the sacrifices paid off. Inge won four national titles with Amsterdam, and as women’s rugby in particular started to take off, she soon found herself travelling the world playing her new-found sport. Her highlight was representing her country at the 2013 Rugby World Cup Sevens in Moscow. But this halcyon period for the sport in the Netherlands proved to be somewhat short-lived.
“The men aren’t in the top 10 in Europe, they play in the lower divisions, so that’s why you don’t hear much about it,” she continues. “But women’s rugby was really coming up, and we started to do very well. A lot of Dutch women’s teams have been pretty successful in hockey, volleyball, all those team sports, and I think because the Netherlands is so small, we have good connections with each other and with the Olympic teams, and that gave us a lot of benefits. There is a very good sport network and training culture, and we had one of the best rugby programs with some of the best coaches involved, guys like Ben Ryan and Sir Gordon Tietjens came over to do some training with us.
“In 2012 we beat Australia at Twickenham (in the Women’s Challenge as part of the London Sevens) and were in the top five in the world. But after that, the development program for women’s rugby changed in Australia, and a lot of high schools came in. There are more girls to pick from here, everybody plays touch and watches footy on the television, and that’s really missing in our culture in the Netherlands.
“So we had a very good group of players but the next group of girls never came through in time, and that’s why I ended up playing for the Netherlands again last year in Hong Kong. Not because I became a bigger or greater player or anything, but because the better new talent wasn’t coming through in time. I’m 34 now, and I think it is a shame that I can still perform at this level because there are not enough new girls yet.”
While rugby matters on the pitch began to take a nosedive, the game did inadvertently provide reason for Inge to prosper away from it. And it was a twist of fate that would have seismic ramifications for the rest of her life.
“I met a rugby player from Australia, who was over in the Netherlands for a year, and I thought ‘Those silly Aussies, I will never end up with one of them!’” she laughs. “But I fell for one, and he was a sheep shearer from Canowindra, near Cowra (four hours West of Sydney). I ended up coming over here to be with him in 2014, and also ended up in the shearing sheds and delivering lambs, but I absolutely loved it. It’s funny, but my Grandad back in Ameland used to have 50 sheep on the bag, but here I was with 5,000!”
It wasn’t her first visit Down Under, she backpacked her way around Australia in 2008 and even squeezed a few games in for the Warringah Ratettes for good measure. And not long after arriving for the second time, that itch to play rugby was starting to flare again. Which was just as well, because her reason for being there in the first place soon disappeared.
“Things didn’t work out between us and we broke up, but while I was here, I really wanted to play rugby. There wasn’t much for women to get involved in, so I ended up training with the men’s team in Cowra,” says Inge. “Because I’m pretty competitive with running, I used to try running circles around them and getting them fitter, because in country rugby, they care a lot more about the beer after the game than the actual game!
“But I loved the rugby culture, and the people in Cowra were really nice to me and let me carry on training with the boys and supporting me and helping me. I’m really grateful to the community and to the club, because at that moment, when everything turned to s**t, if they weren’t there for me I don’t think I would have been here that long.
“Through playing and training with Cowra I met another Aussie boy with a beautiful family who have supported me all the way. Without them, I don’t think I could still be in Australia and playing rugby.”
After laying down her roots and beginning an ongoing career within the local meatpacking industry, her desire to raise the profile of the women’s game in country NSW led her to study at the Western Region Academy of Sport, and start up a program for under 15 and under 17 girls to try and get them involved with rugby through clinics. On the field, she was a star turn for Cowra Eagles women’s team, which led to selection for the Central West, and then NSW Country rep teams, and she has also featured for the successful NSW Blue Belles Sevens side, and competed at five Kiama Sevens tournaments for Warringah.
But to be a part of a fledgling competition that puts women on the same pedestal as men in the domestic game – nominally if not financially just yet – is a scenario that even the resolutely positive Visser could not have foreseen.
“When you first go over to Australia, it was a really big move, but when you get here, you find out that it’s not actually that big, and that there is still a lot of development needed over here. I always thought Australia was more in front with their programs and teams, but when I moved here, I actually found out they were way behind.
“The development of girls through the schools, especially out in the country, was pretty poor. The attention was going to Sevens, and that is great because Australia won the Olympics of course. But for those girls who play XV’s and love that game, it wasn’t really going anywhere. Now, with this competition, all the girls that have been playing with their clubs and travelling up and down the country to train and play, I think this is a dream come true. They definitely deserve to have a competition like this.”
A statuesque 6ft tall, the versatile forward who has been known to run in the centres, has been named at lock for New South Wales. She also has the honour of being joint vice-captain alongside Cobie-Jane Morgan, supporting veteran Wallaroo Ash Hewson, who dons the skipper’s armband. It is a role she is relishing.
“I think because I’ve been in the country and worked with so many teams and developing girls that I can be a role model for them,” she affirms. “I always make sure that everybody in the group is feeling included and getting a fair go. We’ve got a few people who have already been to the top level, and I think I’m a good link in between. I think I’m a hard worker, a team player, and good in the group, and I think that is why the coaches pick me.
“We’ve got four Wallaroos and the rest is young girls on the list, and I expect we will all come together and do really well. Women really try to understand the game and train what they want to know. They’re very open to learning and want to know why they are doing things, and I think the coaches enjoy working with that too.
“I think we definitely got a good chance but Queensland are always tough. They are training four times a week so they are training a lot together, but I don’t know what the girls in the south or the west are doing. There are no trial games to look at so if you want to look at another team’s lineout, you can’t actually find anything. That will be better when the games are on TV but for now, we can’t probably prepare as well as the men are doing. But this is a chance to play some quality rugby on TV, and let people see that we can play just as good as them.”
But will the competition act as the pathway to the holy grail – a glorious triumph at the 2021 Women’s World Cup – for which it has been constructed?
Inge is more than hopeful, but feels that there is still a way to go if the XV’s girls are to go anywhere near to matching the runaway success enjoyed by Australia’s Women’s Sevens team – Rio’s ‘Golden Girls’.
“Money is needed, and mentality too I think,” she observes. “Improvement only comes with more training together and being more professional, and with these programs we have now it will definitely come. But you need dedication too. There is still a bit of a culture in clubs that three trainings a week is enough, and we need some education about not drinking a beer after the game, and that top level sport is a bit more serious.
“There is some talent coming through but intuition you cannot train. You see a lot of girls coming from touch with a lot of talent but you need a lot of other things if you are going to be a top rugby player. Back in the Netherlands, I saw them try to get girls from other sports, like quick sprinters, but you really have to love rugby and love the contact, and to work and work when nobody is looking, if you want to be up with the best.”
Despite fitness levels that still compare favourably with her younger team mates, and an undiminished love affair with the game, at 34, this competition may also serve as the perfect swansong to a memorable career for Visser. She admits that letting it go is not going to be easy, but the enjoyment she has gained from introducing young girls to rugby and then coaching them, may provide her with a smoother transition to the next phase of her rugby life.
“I’ve been saying for a couple of years now ‘One more challenge’, and I really love playing. But I also love coaching and helping other girls to succeed, so I would like to go further with that. I’ve got girls coming over from the Netherlands that are 17 or 18-years-old and are talented young rugby players, and they stay with me and we train together twice a day. So I’ll always be involved somehow, and maybe still playing somewhere not so competitive!
“I’ve been lucky enough to play for my country and to play around the world in the Sevens World Series, and to have been a part of creating the first professional women’s rugby program in the Netherlands. I have worn many different shirts and for me, playing for New South Wales and wearing that shirt in this new competition is the start of something. But also, it would be a good shirt to end with. Whatever happens after this, I’m happy. Australia has become my home now, I really like it over here and it’s a good place to be.”
Our chat ended with a question as to her biggest hopes and expectations for the competition. She didn’t think twice.
“To beat Queensland!”
Yep, she fits right in.
2018 BUILDCORP SUPER W DRAW
(All times are local)
Queensland Women v NSW Women,
Saturday 10 March, 4.00pm, Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane
Western Force Women v Melbourne Rebels Women,
Sunday 11 March, 3.00pm, Cottesloe Rugby Club, Perth
Brumbies Women v Queensland Women,
Saturday 17 March, 5.00pm GIO Stadium, Canberra
NSW Women v Western Force Women,
Sunday 18 March, 1.30pm Allianz Stadium, Sydney
Melbourne Rebels Women BYE
NSW Women v Brumbies Women, 3.00pm,
Saturday 24 March, 3.00pm, Warringah Rugby Park, Sydney
Queensland Women v Melbourne Rebels Women,
Sunday 25 March,1.30pm Ballymore Stadium, Brisbane
Western Force Women BYE
Melbourne Rebels Women v Brumbies Women,
Friday 30 March, 5.00pm, AAMI Park, Melbourne
Western Force Women v Queensland Women,
Saturday 31 March, 3.00pm Kingsway Sporting Complex
NSW Women BYE
Melbourne Rebels Women v NSW Women,
Saturday 7 April, 3.00pm, Box Hill Rugby Club, Melbourne
Brumbies Women v Western Force Women,
Saturday 7 April, 5.00pm GIO Stadium, Canberra
Queensland Women BYE