The sporting stranglehold that football has long held within Portugal is plain to see, but following a heroic team performance at the recent Rugby World Cup, football might have to look over its shoulder as rugby continues to emerge from its considerable shadows.
Going into the recent tournament in France, it is fair to say that Portugal’s expectations would have been limited to ‘hopeful’ or ‘optimistic’. Qualification itself was an enormous achievement, having only scraped past the USA with the final kick of the game in the repechage tournament in Dubai. However, their form leading up the tournament had given them cause for a bullish confidence that Os Lobos had seldom experienced in their seventy-eight-year history. Portugal pulled off a creditable draw away to Georgia and then dismantled the USA 46-20.
But the World Cup is a different beast. Comfortable wins over tier-two opposition are all well and good, but tougher challenges were to lie ahead, starting with a formidable match against Wales. The last time they faced each other in 1994, Wales were victorious by 102-11, but this Portugal side is part of a different era. Portugal impressed the rugby world with their attacking intent and, despite going down 28-8, the two sides had little to separate them for much of the game.
Next up were old foes Georgia, the eastern European powerhouses. For much of the match, it seemed that brute strength would win out over guile as Georgia led 13-5 at halftime, but Portugal grew more into the game and had their higher-ranked opponents on the rack, leading 18-13 with just minutes to go. Alas, it was not to be as Georgia hooker Tengizi Zamtaradze forced his way over the line at the death to draw the sides level at 18-18. There was even time for Nuno Sousa Guedes to miss a highly-kickable penalty with the last play of the game. As the final whistle was blown, an overwhelming sense of what might have been enveloped both sides, but Portugal won the plaudits and took their first-ever World Cup points.
Two-time World Cup winners Australia were up next and, despite their recent struggles for form, nobody expected anything less than a convincing win for the Wallabies. Again, Portugal’s attacking play was evident from the off as they raced into a 7-3 lead after 11 minutes, but some physical rugby from Eddie Jones’ men saw Australia run in five tries to eventually beat the intrepid underdogs 34-14. By this time, the hearts of the sporting media had firmly fallen for the plucky Portuguese and they were no longer seen as potential whipping boys.
The final game was a fascinating match-up against Fiji with their ever-exciting brand of flowing rugby. After defeating Georgia and Australia and coming within a hair’s breadth of beating Wales, Fiji were understandably the hot favourites. But Portugal had not read the script. An enthralling end-to-end match saw Rodrigo Marta touch down for a wonderful try in the 78th minute. Trailing by one point, Samuel Marques stepped up and sent the conversion between the posts to earn Os Lobos the greatest victory in their history. The celebrations would continue long into the night and the repercussions would be felt across the rugby world.
Portugal had achieved their first-ever World Cup victory and it was thoroughly deserved. Progression from the group stage was never an option, but the manner in which Patrice Lagisquet’s men played their brand of fearless, attacking rugby was a pleasure for all to see. The next step for Portugal is consistency and an opportunity to play more tier-one teams. As captain Tomás Appleton put it, “Professionalisation is the way to compete with the best.”
There are signs of positive growth throughout the Portuguese league set-up, but the process can often be painfully slow, especially in this football-dominated country. We must all hope that Portugal rugby is here to stay.
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