I have always been a committed rugby player - and have always balanced it with teaching. I'm a blindside wing forward with a first XV squad place at National League division one team Orrell, and a head of geography in a Wigan high school. Late last year I had an early Christmas present. Among the cards was an invitation to attend a training camp with the Dutch national team.
My paternal grandfather was Dutch and my father was brought up speaking Dutch. But the nearest I'd ever got to the Netherlands was buying a few tulips and a piece of Edam cheese. The invitation was for a three-day training camp from January 4 - the day I was due back in school. Fortunately, my head was supportive when I called him at home, and released me from my school obligations.
This initial training camp, centred at an army base near the town of Amersfoort, was funded by the Nederlandse Rugby Bond, the Dutch rugby football union. Training was based around the development of rugby skills, but we spent much of the time on team-building exercises. I was then selected for the Dutch European Nations Cup squad and, much to my father's excitement, made my debut - and met my Waterloo - in the rain and mud in Belgium, losing 8-0. We've played five matches since.
A typical match weekend includes training on Friday evening and Saturday morning at Castricum Rugby Club. The side then stays together until the game on Sunday, which develops a sense of team response rarely experienced at club level.
The European Nations Cup began in earnest i Amsterdam on February 4, when we played Georgia at their national stadium. We lost 30-3, and lost soon after to Russia 41-20, much to my disappointment, as many of my family made the trip to watch.
The most exciting fixture so far was in early March, when we travelled to Romania and lost 52-15. We also lost to Portugal 20-6 last month, and, by the time you read this, will have played our final game in the European Nations Cup against Spain on April 8 (after Friday went to press). We'll then play a series of friendlies and the odd sevens tournament before the next "official" matches in January 2002.
The cultural experiences, in addition to playing against opposition as enormous as the Russians and the Romanians, have been wonderful. But funding is a problem. My school has been wonderfully supportive but I have to fund my absence - pound;130 a day. My efforts have covered my fixtures so far, but I have to find further sponsorship.
We are lucky in the UK to have such an established and successful structure in our rugby. My inclusion in the Dutch squad is a fantastic personal opportunity, but it is also an opportunity to help the development of rugby in Europe and increase its profile in local schools.
Teaching in the north-west - in the heart of rugby league country - it has been wonderful to see the response of pupils and staff at my school. Their new-found interest in rugby union and the geography of the European nations involved in the competition has helped to strengthen my relationship with the pupils, as well as providing cross-curricular links for almost the entire school.
James Keleumans is head of geography at St Peter's RC high school, Orrell, Wigan. email: firstname.lastname@example.org