Portugal’s recent success as a rugby nation goes beyond the men’s national team qualifying for their second Rugby World Cup.

While Os Lobos captured all the headlines for their dramatic deeds at the RWC 2023 Final Qualification Tournament in Dubai last November, the women’s team is also starting to cause a stir after a quarter of a century of inactivity.

For the first time since their one and only appearance in May 1995, Portugal’s women returned to the test arena in December 2021, announcing their arrival with a 10-8 win against Belgium.

Since then, they have gone from strength to strength, beating Germany 57-0 and Belgium by a record score of 71-5 in Brussels before narrowly losing 7-5 to Sweden, one of the original powerhouses of European women’s rugby.

New frontiers

“This record win was something that we did not expect as we were all new to playing an away game,” said Francisco Goes, vice-president of women’s rugby at the Federação Portuguesa de Rugby.

“Nevertheless, the girls were always calm and composed and played exciting and offensive rugby that was a joy to watch.

“But this win will only be meaningful if we keep our focus, and discipline and keep wanting to get better and better."

Crucially, the national women’s team’s rebirth is underpinned by a growing domestic structure that is starting to widen the player pool and enable more players of quality to feed into the national setup led by head coach João Moura.

Goes explains how the revival of the Portugal women’s national team was led from the top.

“The Portuguese Rugby Union President (Carlos Amado da Silva) is a true supporter of women´s rugby and, since day one that he invited me to the board, the goal was to develop the women´s game domestically, by establishing a consistent 15s Championship, but also to compete in Rugby Europe’s 15s Trophy division,” he said.

“Fortunately, last season, my first on the board, Belgium and Germany were available to visit us in Lisbon and we were really grateful and excited to host them and play test matches after almost 25 years.

“As you can imagine, it was a really emotional period, and I am immensely privileged and honoured to be involved in this process.

“Our top-level players make daily sacrifices to go to practice and fight constantly to break barriers for being women playing rugby in a football country.

“After last season’s wins, all of us started believing that we can compete at a good level in Europe, we even got specific sponsorship for women’s rugby and four of our players got contracts abroad to play professional rugby.

“We know that we still have a long way to go, that we need to get many more girls into rugby but, to get that, we need to stay competitive in the senior 15s national team.”

Domestic reorganisation

After a brief hiatus, the domestic women’s Championship, the Campeonato Nacional de Rugby Feminino, has resumed and plenty of hard work is going on elsewhere to ensure that the lessons of the mid-90s, when the women’s programme was over before it had properly started, aren’t repeated.

Highlighting the work going on, Moura says a spirit of collaboration between the clubs and the union is helping to drive progress.

“When I was invited to take on this position and had the chance to reorganise the women's game in Portugal, it was clear to me that we had to resume the 15s domestic competition and start a proper 15s programme to compete on the international stage,” said the head coach.

“Because we were coming from a couple of years of only playing sevens and 10s at club level, we had to apply/rely on the ’Game On‘ strategy and this allowed clubs and teams to start reconnecting with women and increase their numbers.

“The principle behind it was simple – having a 15s competition means that the clubs will have to work to find more players and, therefore, more numbers at club level means more numbers globally.

“This decision proved right as even despite the COVID-19 pandemic that hit, teams were able to resume their activities and in a slow but steady pace manage to recruit more players every year.

“At the same time, we are trying to establish and cement an U18s domestic competition and also a lower level for an adult competition which will allow new/existing clubs to (re)start their women's teams.

“All these strategies for domestic activities together with resuming a High Performance programme with Regional Academies and a HP pathway from U18s up to adults (still being implemented) is showing results.

“It is also important to mention that a big part of our playing group has already a lot of experience, not just from the years they’ve played the game but also from representing Portugal in the sevens national team.

“Last but not least, the clubs and coaches have been instrumental in order for the union to be able to implement these strategies.”

The next step

On Saturday in Lisbon, Portugal have the honour of playing the first women’s international of the year. They host Finland in the Rugby Europe Women’s Trophy.

“Finland is going to be an interesting game for us. They are a more experienced team than us, they've been playing the Women's Trophy for a while and their players are used to competing at this level,” Moura pointed out.

“They also had a big win against Germany and so I believe that they will come to Lisbon wanting to go home with the win.

“It will be another good moment to assess if we are improving and which areas of our game are strong and where we need to get better.”

Goes, meanwhile, hopes the game will be another step towards a bigger and even brighter future for Portugal in the women’s game.

“Our goal is to try to win every game we have left this season and to be promoted from Rugby Europe’s Trophy to the Championship division next season,” he said.

“We know that it will require a lot of hard work, sacrifices and commitment but we want to dream big!

“Saying that our team will get on the pitch against Finland to win the game and to play the attractive and offensive rugby that we like to play.”

Portugal go into the match ranked 30th in the World Rugby Women's Rankings powered by Capgemini, some 13 places above their opponents.

A win for Portugal is only worth 0.54 of a rating point and, as such, would not result in them climbing any higher. 

Finland, however, would move up at least seven places in victory, with Portugal only one place above them, and could even replace Portugal in 30th if the margin between the teams is more than 15 points.