With participation numbers growing and a World Cup on the horizon, David Lugg explains why 2023 is an important year for Portuguese rugby.
In 2007, the Portuguese national men’s team shocked the rugby world by becoming the first all-amateur side to qualify for the World Cup in France. Despite some battling performances, they finished bottom of their group without a win, but they left with their pride intact and high hopes of the sport, gaining some much-needed publicity back home in Portugal. Alas, the fervour quickly died down and media coverage soon reverted back to football.
However, in the past few years, there have been signs that Os Lobos (The Wolves) might be building something special. Playing in the Rugby Europe Championship (the rung below the Six Nations), they have recorded some impressive results, including a 25-25 draw away to Georgia, who are ranked number twelve in the world. Their good form saw them reach the final qualifying tournament for the 2023 World Cup and, after two comfortable victories against Hong Kong and Kenya, they scored a thrilling last-gasp penalty against the US to top the group and send Portugal to just the second World Cup finals in their history.
The tournament begins in September and will see them return to France in a repeat of their only previous appearance. Captain Tomás Appleton is aware of how big a chance this is for the sport to flourish in his home country. “Rugby in Portugal is growing and this year is a great opportunity for everyone to get to know the sport even better. I think young kids need a national team that can inspire them to play and there’s no better place to watch this team than in a World Cup.”
The 2023 Rugby Europe Championship started extremely well, with three comfortable victories over Belgium, Poland and Romania. In doing so, Portugal topped their group, which meant a home semi-final against old enemies Spain. Despite being 10-0 down after 19 minutes, Portugal stormed back to score 27 unanswered points, playing some free-flowing, speedy rugby in the process.
In the final, Portugal faced a familiar team in the powerhouse Georgia, who had won eleven out of the past twelve championships. The first half was a tight affair, with Georgia leading at halftime by 12-11, but a powerful second-half performance saw Georgia take the title 38-11. Despite the result, The Wolves will hope that 2023 will be a year that will capture the imagination of both the media and the general public. It won’t be an easy task to break the stranglehold of football, but there are great hopes that their exciting brand of open rugby will pay dividends for the next generation of Portuguese players.
Similarly, women’s rugby is also very much on the way up. Despite the game being in its infancy, the national side is on a great run of form, having recently completed high-scoring victories over Belgium, Germany, Finland and Czechia.
They currently top the Women’s Trophy group (Division 3 on the European hierarchy), having scored 161 points and conceding only five. The ultimate goal will be to reach the 2025 World Cup in England, but they will have their work cut out if they are to make it to the finals. Portugal is currently ranked as low as 29 in the world, but considering they only started playing tournament rugby in 2021, they are off to a flying start. A strong showing in this season’s ‘Trophy’ championship will help put them on the right track.
Photos © Luis Cabelo Photography