Patrice Lagisquet belonged to a generation of French rugby players that only knew one way – to attack with ball in hand and entertain.
Known as “The Bayonne Express” throughout his 46-cap career for his blistering pace, it doesn’t take too long to find moments of magic involving the winger in old Five Nations footage on YouTube.
And in some ways, Lagisquet sees shades of Les Bleus of old in the current Portuguese team that he now coaches.
Imbued with the audacity of youth – his 28-strong Rugby Europe Championship squad contains a number of finalists from last year’s World Rugby U20 Trophy – Portugal promise to be an exciting addition to the 2020 competition following their promotion after Rugby Europe Trophy winners beat Championship bottom side Germany in a play-off.
“Portuguese players are very committed, they like rugby and they are very good rugby players. They like to create space and play with a lot of speed. They are not used to fighting in the forwards; they are not specialists in the scrum and maul," he says.
“It is really different from professional rugby in France. It is fresh. I hope we can play that way during the Six Nations B.”
No Storti, no drama
Rampant teenage winger Raffaele Storti, scorer of a record-equalling nine tries at the U20 Trophy in Brazil last year, is absent for the whole campaign as he continues to develop his game with professional Uruguayan outfit, Peñarol, in the new Súper Liga Americana de Rugby (SLAR).
In addition, star U20 fly-half, Jerónimo Portela, will join him there after this weekend’s key encounter with Belgium.
However, Lagisquet says he is still spoilt for choice in the backs, because of Portugal’s ability to nurture exciting young talent. It is no coincidence that Portugal have appeared in two of the last three U20 Trophy finals and given Japan a good run for their money in both.
“Some of them could play without any problem in Pro D2. They could be professional rugby players," he states, without hesitation.
“What is interesting is that most of them go to university and get good jobs, a doctor, a lawyer etc. like in Argentina 30 years ago, and sometimes they are obliged to stop before they are 27-28 years old.”
With playing careers traditionally short, Portugal have never been afraid to give youth its head.
“The Marta brothers (Rodrigo and Manuel) are very good, and we also have players like the centre and captain Tomas Appleton (a relative veteran at the age of 26) and Manuel Cardosa Pinto, who likes to create many things," says Lagisquet, who began working with Os Lobos in September.
“He scored a try for Agronomia, in the Iberia Cup, which is a match-up between the champions of Portugal and the champions of Spain a few weeks ago, where he beat six players. It reminded me of Serge Blanco.” High praise indeed.
Upfront, Portugal lack a bit of grunt but even there, they have some good prospects coming through.
“We went on tour to Chile and Brazil in November, and again the U20 players were a big part of the squad. The second-row, José Duarte Madeira, who is still only 18, played 80 minutes in both games. What he could do was incredible," says Lagisquet.
“Our project is a four-year project, to try and qualify for the next World Cup, and these young players will be a big part of the team in the coming years. I think Portugal does a really good job with young players.”
Even so, Lagisquet knows that to prosper at this level he needs to be able to call upon the Portuguese forwards plying their trade in the French leagues.
With his obvious French connections – the 57-year-old was once assistant of Les Bleus as well as a former player and still lives in his native country – Lagisquet has managed to forge a good relationship with the Top 14, Pro D2 and Federale 1 clubs.
“We have good contact with the clubs, and we know we can call on these players to help us compete; there is no problem with the clubs," he points out.
“We’ll have players like Geoffrey Moise, who is playing for Section Paloise (Pau), and also players like the hooker Mike Tadjer (Clermont) and second-row Jean Sousa (Montauban) for the game against Romania, because there are no club games that weekend.
“We need to be more powerful, strong in the scrum, to help us compete at this level, and these players will help us.
“Joe El-Abd, the coach at Oyonnax, the club where the centre Pedro Bettencourt plays, said he will never stop him going to play for his country. Unfortunately, he got what appears to be a one-week concussion last weekend.
“David Aucagne, the coach of Beziers, asked if he could keep Francisco Fernandes, his best left-side prop, for their game at the weekend, because it was very important for them. But he will play against Romania. So we try to find the best agreement for everybody.”
Lagisquet is reluctant to look beyond this weekend’s game against Belgium in Lisbon when assessing his side’s chances of making an impact on their return to the competition after a four-year absence.
The outcome of the match could be pivotal to their chances of avoiding a swift return to the Rugby Europe Trophy, a competition they have dominated in recent years with three straight titles.
“Our first objective is to win the first game and try and stay in the Six Nations B," he says.
“But we’ll have an interesting game against Romania one week later because we’ll have more of our professional players coming back to us.
“If we compete well against them, then maybe we’ll have more ambition for this tournament.”
For Lagisquet, the Georgia game, on 7 March, is one with even greater significance than the points on offer.
“There is a large Portuguese population in France, around four million, I think, and the next World Cup is there. We know that they will have a lot of support if we get there, which is why when we play Georgia in March, we play in Paris, at the Stade Jean Bouin.
“The president of Portugal Rugby, he wants to show to World Rugby that Portuguese rugby has ambition and a lot of support.”
A member of the French team that reached the final of the inaugural Rugby World Cup, the man born in the Bay of Biscay is hoping that he can lead Os Lobos to their second tournament there, following their first and only appearance to date in 2007.
“It would be nice, yes. But it’s far away.”
Photo: Miguel Carmo