Portugal couldn’t have asked for a tougher start to what they hope will be the run-in to Rugby World Cup 2023 qualification but fly-half Jorge Abecasis says they will relish the challenges ahead.

As the third-placed team in the Rugby Europe Championship at the midway point of the qualification process, Portugal have put themselves in a good position to claim one of the region’s two automatic qualification places.

But with consecutive away games against the top two teams, Georgia and Romania, in the first two rounds of Rugby Europe Championship 2022, Os Lobos (”The Wolves”) will need to be on top of their game from the word go if they’re not to drop off the pace in the race for a place in Pool C as Europe 1 or Pool B as Europe 2 at France 2023.

“It’s good to get cracking early and face some of the toughest teams. We are also playing Spain away which will be a very good game,” said Abecasis, a final year medical student.

“We are just focusing on it game by game and preparing accordingly and give our best, even if it is Georgia or Romania away.

“There will be a lot of fans supporting Georgia and that will apply pressure but we’ll just try to take it all in and absorb the moment and understand we are fighting for a World Cup position.”

Aiming to go one better

Romania and Georgia were the only teams to beat them in the Rugby Europe Championship in 2021, and Abecasis says there is a new-found confidence in the squad coached by former France winger, Patrice Lagisquet, as they look to make it to their first tournament in 16 years.

“I think the main thing for us was to believe we could make it. Before the first game (of REC 2021), no-one was expecting these results and it was for us to understand and believe we could play at a high level and compete with the supposedly bigger teams like Georgia, Romania and Spain.

“We still have a lot of work this year and it will be even harder because Romania, Spain and Georgia are looking very strong and also have had good results. We are keen to get started and to put in some good performances, maybe even better than last year.”

As a rugby-mad youngster back home in Lisbon, Abecasis remembers the uplift the sport got the last and only previous time Portugal played in the game’s showpiece event in 2007.

“It would mean the world to Portuguese rugby and would bring a lot of youngsters to the game like it did in 2007.

“I remember those times and it was crazy. We’d have 20-25 kids turning up for training at our club and then, all of a sudden 50-60 kids showed up after the World Cup.”

Defined pathway to the top

Abecasis is one of a crop of talented young players to have graduated to the test team from the Portuguese age-grade system.

The U20 pathway has served the country well in terms of developing players to be test-ready, and the recent addition of the Rugby Europe Super Cup has added another layer of experience.

With players like Abecasis involved, Portugal’s Lusitanos representative team finished the group stages of the inaugural Super Cup unbeaten.

“A good job has been done in developing the U16s, U18s and U20s,” Abecasis said.

“A lot of us have been playing together since we were very young and we know each other well and are good friends outside of rugby.

“The Lusitanos team has enabled us to train and play at a higher level. We’re getting more game time with guys on the national team and getting more training with the national team coaches, so it’s all good experience.”

Jerónimo Portela succeeded Abecasis as U20 fly-half and is now his rival for the test number 10 jersey.

Abecasis made his debut against Brazil in June 2017 and has won 13 caps, but Portela is quickly catching him up and is only one appearance behind despite being three years his junior.

“We are competing for the same position but, above all else, it is a very healthy competition.

“We both want to start, and he has started a bit more lately, but we are always talking and working together to help each other and push each other.

“He’s one of my very good friends on and off the field.”

Read more: Georgia secure fourth consecutive Rugby Europe Championship 2021 >>