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The Dutch teenager set to make his Super Rugby Pacific debut for the Highlanders

By Alex McLeod
(Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

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He may be a teenager from a minnow rugby nation, but Fabian Holland has the total faith of Highlanders head coach Tony Brown ahead of his Super Rugby Pacific debut.

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The 19-year-old Dutch lock has been named on the bench for his side’s round six clash against the Blues at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin after having trained with the Highlanders as a wider training squad player throughout the course of the season.

Injuries and positive Covid cases within the Highlanders squad have since paved the way for Holland to earn a call-up to the franchise’s reserves bench this weekend.

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Holland’s rise to Super Rugby Pacific comes just four years after he moved to New Zealand from the Netherlands to pursue a career in rugby, which has proved fruitful thus far.

Already, the 2.04m second rower has played for the New Zealand Schools and New Zealand U20 teams, and made his first-class debut for Otago in last year’s NPC.

Now he will tick off a Super Rugby Pacific debut on Saturday, and Brown is eager to see what his new recruit can offer in the infancy of his rugby career.

“He’s an impressive man. He’s come over to New Zealand from Holland for a reason, and that’s to play professional rugby,” Brown told media in the lead-up to this week’s match.

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“He gets his opportunity this weekend to debut for the Highlanders. It’s a team he grew up watching, he’s super stoked to be part of, and he’s added to our team environment.

“I think as a rugby player, he’s always going to be successful, and hopefully this weekend’s a start for him.”

Holland’s rugby journey isn’t dissimilar to that of Blues rookie Anton Segner, the German flanker who was Holland’s teammate in last year’s New Zealand U20 squad and has an eye on becoming an All Black in the coming years.

Like Segner, Holland first harboured an interest in rugby in his homeland, where the sport only has a niche following compared to other codes such as football.

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That is why Brown was so impressed at Holland’s extensive depth of rugby knowledge, as well as his ball-playing qualities after having grown up as a first-five in the Netherlands.

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“I was [impressed] when he told us that he learned English by watching rugby and listening to Justin Marshall commentate, which is a bit of a concern really,” Brown joked.

“But his love for the game and his love for the Highlanders and New Zealand rugby is huge. He’s so passionate about the game, he’s so knowledgeable, and he grew up being a first-five-eighth in Holland.

“Being a 2.03m or 2.04m lock with first-five-eighth skills is pretty unique, so looking forward to seeing him out there. I know that he’s going to be a good rugby player, we’ve just got to get him out there and give him some time.”

Brown will be hopeful that Holland’s big physical frame and mobility around the park will help propel the Highlanders to their first win of the season after having lost their first four matches of the campaign.

All Blacks Sevens star Vilimoni Koroi has also been called into the match day squad in bid to add some versatility and class into the Highlanders lineup following the unavailability of numerous outside backs.

“He hasn’t been injured, but he was a bit of a late starter. He came in late into our environment, so we’re just getting him up to speed,” Brown said of Koroi.

“This weekend’s his first opportunity, and, like you say, he’s a utility player who can fill in either at 10, 15 or on the wing, so whatever we need at any given time, he’ll be ready to go in any one of those positions.”

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Those unavailabilities have also resulted in the recall of Otago wing Freedom Vahaakolo into the squad as an injury replacement player.

Vahaakolo made his Super Rugby debut for the Highlanders last year, but missed out on a contract this season despite starring in the 2021 NPC.

Without a franchise for this season, the 24-year-old joined the Crusaders in a training capacity earlier in the year, and featured for the Christchurch-based in their pre-season matches against the Highlanders and Hurricanes.

However, Vahaakolo has returned to the Highlanders and is on standby as the depleted southerners await the return of their frontline players.

“We’ve brought in Freedom Vahaakolo this week, so he’s been in helping us out,” Brown said.

“We’ve had a lot of injuries in the outside backs. We’re really struggling to keep players on the field for more than two games in a row, so hopefully we get a bit of luck around that injury side this week and going forward and we can consistently pick the same players.”

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