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The Highlanders’ Dutch lock who dreams of playing for the All Blacks

By Finn Morton
Fabian Holland of the Highlanders looks on ahead of the round four Super Rugby Pacific match between Highlanders and Western Force at Invercargill Rugby Park, on March 19, 2023, in Invercargill, New Zealand. (Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

Arjen Robben is considered one of the greatest players to have ever worn the famous Orange football kit of the Netherlands. Robben led the ‘Oranje’ to two top-three finishes at FIFA World Cups and he also won a Champions League with German powerhouse Bayern Munich.

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New Zealand has Richie McCaw and Dan Carter as sporting icons who go above and beyond the simple tag of ‘hero’ to fans watching on, and Robben joins the likes of Robin van Persie in sharing that status in the Netherlands.

It must be an honour like no other to represent your nation while following in the footsteps of these sporting giants. Practically “every” Dutch kid dreams of being the next Robben or van Persie and a young Fabian Holland was just the same.

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Fabian Holland’s incredible path to potential All Black lock

Second row Fabian Holland chats to Finn Morton about the fascinating path he’s taken to find himself at the Highlanders in New Zealand.

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Fabian Holland’s incredible path to potential All Black lock

Second row Fabian Holland chats to Finn Morton about the fascinating path he’s taken to find himself at the Highlanders in New Zealand.

Living in a small village near Amsterdam, the big-framed Holland was a centre-back on the football field who took a particular liking to “the physical side” of the game. That love for contact has since seen the Dutchman embark on a rugby journey like no other.

“Through this school program I ended up at a rugby training… just to try out. I pretty much just fell in love with the sport to be honest. Started when I was five years old, mum and dad drove me to training every day,” Holland told RugbyPass last month.

“From there on, well obviously when I was 16 I came to New Zealand but ever since I touched a rugby ball I loved watching games.

“My favourite team was obviously the All Blacks, just the way they play. There’s something about the team, the aura around it that’s pretty special and that was where the dream started.”

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Holland was just a young man with an unlikely dream. Half a world away from the All Blacks, the then-teenager dreamt of what it would be like to do the haka before a test match and play for New Zealand on the international rugby stage.

Fabian Holland <a href=
Highlanders Super Rugby Pacific” width=”1080″ height=”1080″ /> Finn Morton spoke with Dutchman Fabian Holland about his ambitions to play for the All Blacks. (Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

Watching from home, Holland’s introduction to the All Blacks was a test match between the soon-to-be world champions and Wales in either 2009 or 2010. New Zealand have not lost a test to the Welsh since 1953 which was more than 70 years ago.

“I fell in love from there. Just fell in love with the idea of being part of that team, being part of that legacy,” he explained.

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The Hollands used to watch a Super Rugby match every night. There were seven games a round, so the Dutchman’s father would record them all on a Sunday which allowed the family to “park up” on the couch to enjoy them.

“Then when the next week came we’d download the Super Rugby games on Sunday… you get quite a bit of rugby footage under your belt.”

Years later, the All Blacks Sevens visited the Netherlands. Before embarking on their quest for 2014 Commonwealth Games gold in Glasgow, coach Gordon Tietjens brought the squad to Holland’s local club.

Akira Ioane, Gillies Kaka and DJ Forbes were among the talented group of men who would go on to win silver. But before all the attention and pressure of that international event, the Kiwis got away from it all.

“They had a little training camp, I think it was a three-day, four-day training camp in our little village at our local rugby club just so they could get away from all the media… from the pressure of already being around the scene in Scotland.

“The players were just real nice and got around the kids. To see them train and we’d be sitting around the field was pretty crazy.

“I think there were probably around seven (thousand) to 10,000 people just for a training session.

“To just have the pinnacle of the sport of sevens at our local club was pretty special and it meant a lot. It reiterated (and) ignited that passion for the All Blacks a little bit more.”

Before even making the trip to New Zealand, Holland had a unique love of the game. His passion for the sport was relentless, and maybe it had to be before making the trip to a small nation at the bottom of the world.

In 2019, the 16-year-old initially moved to Christchurch “to develop my game.” But Christchurch Boys High School wanted the towering lock to stay around a bit longer, so they offered to take Holland in as a border for his senior year.

Holland played for the well-known First XV at the Christchurch school, and went on to represent New Zealand at under-20s level before progressing through to Super Rugby with the Highlanders.

“I remember my first New Zealand 20s game or my first New Zealand schools game, I called my mum afterwards in disbelief of what just happened.

“Once you get a taste of it you just want more and you get more hungry.

“We’re talking about that fire and that passion to play for the All Blacks and little milestones just keep adding to that fire. For me, it was surreal, surreal to be around those teams.”

The Tony Brown-coached Highlanders got in touch with Holland and really connected with the European talent over the values that they shared. The rugby-obsessed Dutchman wanted to be part of an exciting period in Dunedin.

Holland debuted for the Highlanders off the pine in the sixth round of the 2022 Super Rugby Pacific season against the Blues and has gone on to become a mainstay of the starting second-row along with Maori All Black Pari Pari Parkinson.

“We got picked up from the airport, brought down here (to) HQ. They were talking about their values and what it means for them… to be a Highlander.

“They did a lot of research but just what they stood for and what they want to achieve is something I really wanted to be a part of.

“To then pull on the jersey and be around the blokes and be on the field in the stadium under the roof, it was pretty special.”

Fabian Holland Highlanders Super Rugby Pacific
Finn Morton spoke with Highlanders lock Fabian Holland about his move from the Netherlands to New Zealand. (Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

This journey which started in the Netherlands and led to Super Rugby Pacific in New Zealand was once unique. To this writer’s knowledge, there hasn’t been another Dutch-born man who has played Super Rugby for a Kiwi franchise.

But that number which now sits at one could very well double in the foreseeable future with another Holland impressing with the Highlanders John Hones Steel Under-20’s team.

Remember the name Quinten Holland who’s Fabian’s younger brother.

“He’s going through a similar journey to play rugby,” Fabian Holland explained.

“It’s pretty funny because we sometimes talk about it like we literally lived in a village. it’s a little four by 2-kilometre village.

“We probably spent most of our time just throwing a ball around there, kicking or one-on-ones or whatever it is.

“To be around here and be around the facilities and training together, it sometimes feels a bit surreal. It’s pretty special and for me, it gives me a sense of home.”

But Fabian Holland will go down in history as a trailblazer for European men and women who dream of one day playing professional rugby along with and against the best players in the southern hemisphere.

Whether Holland goes on to play for the All Blacks – with the Dutchman suiting up as a genuine candidate to debut in the near future – is almost not the point. The legacy of this unlikely rugby journey will inspire many.

The young man who used to watch seven Super Rugby games every week, and also looked on in awe as the likes of Akira Ioane trained at his local club 10 years ago, is now up there with the best that New Zealand rugby has to offer – and it’s deserved.

But Holland does get a “bit starstruck” from time to time, even now.

“For me, it’s a massive honour to play against guys like that. Of course, you’ve got a job to do and stuff like that. When you’re in the moment you’re just trying to focus on your job.

“Looking back at it, guys that I really admired because of my first game of watching the All Blacks in 2009… Cory Jane was ripping up at that moment and then to have him as a New Zealand U20s coach… was pretty surreal.

“It’s those moments you just have to pinch yourself a little bit.

“For me, once I’m in the moment I’m just real focused on what’s ahead of me and what I can do for the team, but when I look back on it, it’s pretty special and definitely gets a wee bit starstruck afterwards.”

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