Success at under-20 level does not automatically translate into the senior test arena, but Portugal captain Tomás Appleton sees definite parallels between the progress being made by France and that of his own team.
Les Bleus are now being talked up as serious contenders for Rugby World Cup 2023, not only because they are hosts but due to the crop of talented youngsters that are driving the team forward.
Portugal may be operating at a lower level but they have also shown a willingness to invest in youth, with a good proportion of the sides that finished on the podium in three consecutive World Rugby U20 Trophy tournaments now playing influential roles in Os Lobos’ bid to qualify for only their second Rugby World Cup.
“We all know that the French had a world champion U20 team, and they brought a lot of their players into the senior side, and we have had some really good results as well, especially in the World Rugby U20 Trophy,” acknowledged Appleton.
“We are building a solid group and, of course, our main goal is to be at the Rugby World Cup in 2023 in France.”
Like France, Portugal have two U20 graduates vying for the number 10 jersey. For Romain Ntamack and Matthieu Jalibert swap Jorge Abecasis, and his successor in the U20s, Jerónimo Portela.
“They are amazing players and although both are still really young, they have experienced professional rugby environments overseas,” said Appleton, who plays his club rugby with 20-time Portuguese champions CDUL.
“Jerónimo was a bit unlucky. Because of the COVID situation, he had to come back from South America. But he was starting to build something on a professional level.
“And Jorge, in 2017 or 2018, I think it was, went to the Crusaders high performance academy in Christchurch and he came back with a really good understanding of the game and was more physical and faster.”
At the other end of the age scale is Samuel Marques, Portugal’s goal-kicking scrum-half.
Marques, a Top 14 player in France with Pau, ended his eight-year exile from the national team when he started the round one defeat to Georgia and has added much to the team.
In addition to contributing nearly half of his side’s points in this year’s Rugby Europe Championship, the 32-year-old has been a key figure in leading the youngsters around him on the field.
“He has had a big impact on the team,” agreed Appleton. “He plays in the Top 14 in France and is used to a more competitive environment than the rest of the boys and brings a lot of experience with him. Our team is not that old and sometimes we need players like him to make good decisions and to calm things down, and he does that really well.”
Appleton, now 27 years of age, was a teenager when Portugal made their Rugby World Cup debut in France in 2007 and would love to lead the team back there as one of Europe’s direct qualifiers.
“There was a big hype around rugby at that time (2007), and I was lucky enough to be in France, at an international U15 tournament, when the World Cup was on and I went to watch Portugal’s game against Italy in Paris,” he said.
For Rugby World Cup 2023, Europe have been granted two automatic qualification places, with the top two sides, after results from the Rugby Europe Championship 2021 and 2022 are taken into account, claiming the places reserved for Europe 1 and Europe 2.
Presently, Portugal sit second in the table behind Georgia and on course to play defending world champions South Africa, Ireland, Scotland and Asia/Pacific 1.
“Second place is our main goal but we are also realistic enough to know that two years ago we were playing at a lower level, against the likes of Czechia and Ukraine,” said Appleton, conscious that Portugal should remember not to get too far ahead of themselves when so much rugby is still to be played.
Portugal are only three games into what is effectively a 10-game qualification campaign, and have only won once, but there were plenty of positives to take from the defeats to Georgia (29-16) and Romania (28-27) and the 43-28 win over Spain.
“For the game against Georgia, we knew from the beginning it would be the hardest game because they are, I think, the favourites for this group,” recalled Appleton, who is approaching a half-century of caps for his country.
“We must not forget that in November we were playing in a series against Brazil and Georgia was playing England, Wales, Ireland and Fiji in the Autumn Nations Cup. So there is a big difference.
“I think we did well from time to time, and at half-time we were winning. But in the end their physical strength prevailed. It was a bit harsh to lose the losing bonus point on the last play of the game.
“Going into the Romania game, we were hungry to do well and we started really well. We were comfortable on the scoreboard but we had terrible lineouts and didn’t manage the game very well and lost in the last minute to a try from a driving maul.
“There have been a few defeats that have been hard to take but this one was a really big punch in the stomach.
“Against Spain, it was a bit different. It was a kill-or-die game and we knew we needed to step up. We took a while to find ourselves but we grew into the game and our forwards gave us a good attacking structure to score and the backs did really well.
“It was really good to be on a high note as the games against Russia and Belgium or the Netherlands are coming. I think it will be good for us to play in July; Portuguese players love to play in the sun.”
Halfway to heaven
Once those fixtures are played, Portugal and the rest of the teams in the Rugby Europe Championship will be at the halfway point of their qualification campaigns.
Having been to a Rugby World Cup as a wide-eyed spectator, Appleton would love nothing more than to get there as a player and enjoy the support of the large Portuguese diaspora in France.
“There are more than one million Portuguese people in Paris,” he pointed out. “To play at a Rugby World Cup in France would be amazing.”
Photo: Luis Cabelo