It all started with a simple approach to the president of the Portuguese Rugby Federation, Carlos Da Silva, one day in 2019, shortly after his election.

"We got his details through the president of the Spanish Federation," says Patrice Lagisquet in an exclusive interview with World Rugby.

"We" were two friends who suggested to him that perhaps he – a true legend of French rugby, a superb winger who played in the final of the very first Men's Rugby World Cup in 1987 and who scored several memorable tries during a 46-cap test career – could apply for the role of head coach of Portugal.

The profile of the man who was nicknamed the 'Bayonne Express' appealed and he was selected. Portugal's young players rushed to his Wikipedia page to find out who this tall, bald man was, who had the potential to make their Rugby World Cup dreams come true.

"There was curiosity, but there was also respect. They listened and saw straight away that I had a lot of experience. I thought they were very attentive, very concentrated, but also very passionate," Lagisquet says.

"And the other thing is that I found them very playful. Every time I suggested a new element, they wanted to have fun. I even had to slow them down. I found them to be very intelligent players."

The incarnation of French flair, the former winger was soon injecting Portuguese flair into this team.

Turning Portugal into world-class machine

At the time, Portugal were still a long way from securing their place at Rugby World Cup 2023 in France. It would be only their second appearance at the tournament, after a winless first experience in 2007.

But it was this huge challenge that motivated Lagisquet. He rallied the support of a loyal team who would throw all their weight behind the challenge, including João Mirra, the backs coach, Luis Pissarra, former scrum-half in the 2007 team, and Michael Dallery, the strength and conditioning coach. David Gérard, who would be appointed Romania coach in December 2023, would join them at a later date.

But the former France international only had four years ahead of him. Four years to turn this small rugby nation, where the game is not yet professional, into a genuine world-class machine that would leave its mark on the global game.

"Yes, I had this idea, because I knew that Portuguese rugby had good resources through the Under-20s, which were achieving good results. And we also knew that there was a pool of players playing in France, professional players who could return to the national team," says Lagisquet.

"What I slightly underestimated was the time it would take me to build up the experience of this team. I had pretty much correctly estimated the human potential, but not sufficiently the time we would need, the number of matches that would be necessary to reach a certain level of play; in particular the difficulties in dealing with certain French clubs who were not prepared to release the players; it was quite complicated right up to the World Cup."

The race to qualify for RWC 2023

Their first two tests in November 2019, played on a tour of South America, would be crucial for the rest of their adventure. A narrow defeat against Brazil (26-24) was followed by a clear victory over Chile (23-18).

"These matches gave me a clearer idea of the potential and, above all, the capacity of this team to train," he remembers. "We only started off with young players, especially the U20s. We were missing a lot of the best Portuguese players who were tied up with their leagues. As they were amateurs, they couldn't take time off work either."

The COVID-19 pandemic prevented him from building faster. But a deadline was approaching: the Rugby World Cup 2023 Final Qualification Tournament in November 2022.

Lagisquet had a strategy in mind. He would use the 21 tests until that date as warm-up matches for Os Lobos. To build this world-class team, he would need a powerful weapon, and found it in the Lusitanos, the Portuguese franchise created to play in the Rugby Europe Super Cup since 2021.

"The Lusitanos are coached by the national team staff, a bit like the Georgians. And that has enabled us to make a lot of progress with the amateur players who were playing in Portugal," Lagisquet recalls. 

"For example, in November 2021, we played Canada, and it was the first time Portugal had beaten Canada (20-17). There were 21 players on the match sheet who were born in Portugal; we played mostly with the Lusitanos base."

The road to qualification

The reservoir was in place, and all that was missing now were opportunities to play. And that's precisely what Lagisquet and his staff would be lacking over the coming months. "We needed a few more games. But especially a few matches at the same level as against Italy or Japan, for example," confirms the coach.

One thing this young team lacked, for example, was game management. The 28-27 defeat to Romania in March 2021 and the 38-25 reverse against Japan in November of that year were lost in the last two minutes of the game.

"If I'd had more games, I think I would have identified some of these problems in the very important matches we played, and it was thanks to the three matches in the summer of 2022 that I finally identified the problems," remembers Lagisquet.

At the end of June and July 2022, three defeats were recorded against Italy, Argentina XV and Georgia. "That's when I finally understood that my team wasn't in control of events when it came to very, very tense finishes, and it was their lack of experience at this level of competition that was showing, even though we regularly won matches," the coach explains.

But these lessons would be put to good use four months later at the qualifying tournament for RWC 2023 in Dubai. The preparation focused on strategic choices and decisions based on the match scenario in the final minutes.

"I prepared my team mentally to make decisions based on the parameters of the game at the end of matches. And that was decisive in qualifying for Dubai," Lagisquet said.

There, Portugal beat Hong Kong China and then Kenya soundly before Samuel Marques clinched a draw, and qualification, against USA with the final kick of the match. Os Lobos had booked their place in an extremely tough Pool C against Wales, Georgia, Australia and Fiji.

Portugal set sights … on Wales

Finally qualified for the tournament in France, Portugal began to dream. Training intensified. The Federation put all its resources into it, with financial and logistical support from World Rugby. The French and Portuguese staff made English their working language. The direct link with the President of the Portuguese Federation made things easier.

Portugal won five of their seven warm-up matches in 2023. That was enough to motivate the troops and give them the audacity to set their sights higher. What if they could pull off a major coup? Make world rugby history with a stunning strike? So Lagisquet came up with a plan, took the plunge and targeted one match: against Wales.

"It was our first match," he reveals for the first time. "We thought the Welsh were going to field their second team, that they were going to rotate players because they had played Fiji in the first match and were going to play Australia in the third. And in between, they were playing us six days after playing Fiji, a very physical match.

"And because we hadn't even started the competition yet, we knew we were going to be coming in very fresh. That's why we targeted this match. We'd been talking about it ever since we qualified in Dubai. We talked a lot about this match, but amongst us, we weren't allowed to talk about it outside; it was just between us."

It is with this ambitious perspective that Portugal built their preparations, fine-tuning each of their performance criteria: speed of execution, speed of decision-making, quality of contest, discipline, etc.

"The Rugby Europe Championship in 2023 was not about results, but about the ability to play to high standards. All our preparation was geared towards our ability to perform well in the first match against Wales."

The proof was in the pudding. In November 2022, Portugal managed a 16-16 draw against USA in Dubai. The following August, Os Lobos beat the Eagles 46-20. A milestone had been reached. Preparation was the driving force behind Portugal's campaign.

And the team came within a whisker of pulling off the upset on 16 September in Nice. Although Wales opened the scoring, a yellow card 30 minutes into a tight first half hampered them and Portugal reduced the deficit to four points.

But a try from captain Dewi Lake just before the break stretched Wales' lead out once more.

"We should have finished 7-3 before the break and I can tell you that 7-3 is not the same as 14-3. It's all about mental strength at half-time, especially when you've just scored in the last second of the half. I think we would have been even stronger mentally in the second half."

Despite some good opportunities in the second half, Portugal were unable to recover and went down 28-8.

Heading for the surprise of Toulouse

In the end, the modest Portuguese team, who had not been promised much, grew in stature and power with each successive match.

"Georgia was a match we could have won, and there too we lacked a little bit of control at the end of the match," remembers Lagisquet, who nonetheless considers the 18-18 draw to be a good result.

What was also lacking in this match was the players' ability to manage their emotions. "For the second match, I thought it was settled, that the players had dealt with the problem of emotion, but in fact they hadn't, because in Toulouse there was an even greater atmosphere, with even more Portuguese supporters.

"During the anthems, the players were a little overwhelmed by emotion and they missed the first half and the start of the second."

For the third match, against Australia on 1 October in Saint-Etienne, the question of dealing with emotions no longer arose, nor did that of the end of the match control. But discipline was lacking, as was the ability to adapt.

"We started the game really well, it was magnificent, we're doing really well. Then we picked up a yellow card and we weren't able to adapt our strategy. Australia scored three tries and we weren't able to do what we'd been working on in training.

"We continued to play as if there were 15 of us and that cost us dearly."

Three tries in seven minutes just before the break proved decisive in the Wallabies' 38-14 victory.

All that remained was one match, against Fiji on 8 October, back in Toulouse where the atmosphere had been exceptional. And then, all the planets suddenly aligned: "the emotions, the experience, the right choices to score at the end, the mental capacity to manage the end of the match", says Lagisquet.

The match was completely crazy and is now part of Rugby World Cup history. "We competed in the contest, we had a defence that was well in place, and we managed to counter the Fijian system. We quickly realised that our strategy was working, and so we told ourselves that we had something to play for." Victory was earned by a single point, 24-23.

Portugal and Fiji on the same path

Could this surprise in Toulouse be compared to the miracle of Brighton, in which Japan beat South Africa at RWC 2015, paving the way for the Brave Blossoms to reach the quarter-finals at home four years later?

"The big problem with Portuguese rugby is that it is amateur," observes Lagisquet. "And the only way to make it evolve and have the ambition to ensure that the level of performance continues to improve is to have a professional team in Portugal, and that means the Lusitanos becoming a professional team.

"If you look at Fiji's progress, for example, that's exactly what I mean. Fiji have players who play professionally in France. And they have the Fijian Drua (the Super Rugby Pacific franchise) which allows them to play at a very good level.

"And all that has enabled them to build a team that performs better and more consistently than they did before.

"We need the same thing for Portugal. The Lusitanos need to become professionals, who will play in the Super Cup and even try to play in a European Cup so that they have enough competition and players who are sufficiently prepared for international level.

"And we still need to continue to develop the skills of the best players, the best young Portuguese in French rugby by being professionals in France so that we have a sufficient professional base to continue to progress."

The succession

In France, Portugal had been a marker to the point of prompting the Springboks to invite Os Lobos for a test in South Africa in July 2024. "It's true that it's quite exceptional," admits Lagisquet.

"What's more, what's interesting is that in South Africa there are players with Portuguese ancestry. Plus, that fits in well with the needs of the Portuguese, who need to be stronger up front. But it's true that it's a great recognition."

If the Federation has this ambition, does it currently have the resources? Lagisquet's succession is not yet settled. Sébastien Bertrank, who was due to take over, stepped down a month later, stating he had failed to appreciate the scale of the task ahead.

As for Lagisquet, he is now preparing for retirement. "I finished quite tired," he confesses. "For me, rugby is always a secondary activity. Right now, I'm preparing to retire from my insurance firm. I'm going to stop in 15 months' time now.

"I'm going to do some training in clubs here and there, for fun, but no more than that. I know how committed it is to be in the national team and it's taken up a lot of time, even mentally. You have to be very available; you have to have time and you have to stick with it.

"I also need to recover a little because I haven't had a holiday for practically four years. So, I need to take a bit of a break."