Portugal face 'transition' period after Rugby World Cup surprise

rugby02 February 2024 05:00| © AFP
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Patrice Lagisquet © Gallo Images

Portugal stunned everyone last year when they surprised Fiji in the Rugby World Cup in only their second appearance at the event.

Os Lobos (The Wolves) beat the Pacific Islanders and eventual quarterfinalists by a point in the group stage.

It came three weeks after drawing with Georgia, featuring at their sixth World Cup, and 16 years after suffering a 108-13 defeat to New Zealand during their competition debut in 2007.

Portugal, coached by former France winger Patrice Lagisquet, returned home from the tournament in October to a hero's welcome in unprecedented scenes for rugby in the football-mad country.

On Saturday, Portugal play their first game since the tournament as they head to Mons to face Belgium in the second-tier Rugby Europe Championship, hoping to build on their performances despite a change of coach and numerous first-choice players retiring.

"I thought we had one surprise in us," Lagisquet told AFP.

"I was scared that we would be confronted by the reality of the physical challenge and we would be worn out by the battle up-front in the games.

"In the end, it was the contrary and we even finished by beating one of the most physical teams in the World Cup, Fiji," the 61-year-old added.

Stand-out performances during the campaign included winger Raffaele Storti, who crossed three times in four games to thrill a country that traditionally idolises footballers, like Cristiano Ronaldo, Eusebio and Luis Figo.

"There's no chance for me to be like Ronaldo," Storti told AFP.

"I felt a lot of support that I didn't feel before, but I'm not even close to those kinds of names. I keep humble, focused on my rugby and keep improving," the 23-year-old added.


Since the World Cup, Portugal replaced Lagisquet with fellow Frenchman Sebastien Bertrank, who resigned from the role barely a month after being appointed.

Former Argentina head coach Daniel Hourcade was then put in charge on an interim basis for the upcoming campaign.

"It's a temporary solution with sense," said Lagisquet. "I'm not worried about that."

The Rugby Europe Championship is being held during World Rugby's international window, which obliges clubs to release players for test matches.

Eleven of Portugal's squad play in the French second-tier, ProD2, which holds five rounds of game during the period, including Storti, who is on loan at Beziers from Top 14 side Stade Francais.

"I've heard some ProD2 clubs put pressure on players," said Lagisquet.

"I'm scared that some players won't play in all the matches of the Rugby Europe Championship," he added.

Another potential headache for Hourcade is the retirement of experienced players like scrum-half Samuel Marques as well as front-rowers Mike Tadjer and Francisco Fernandes with qualification for the 2027 World Cup starting next year.

"I think you have to think about one or two years of transition," Lagisquet said.

"It's a year that will serve to flesh out the squad before the World Cup qualifying."

After the World Cup in France, World Rugby announced plans for a competition starting in 2026 allowing more games between lower-ranked sides like Portugal and the top nations such as France, New Zealand and England.

In the meantime, Os Lobos have a first game against four-time World Cup winners South Africa in Bloemfontein in July.

Storti has been in stellar form for Beziers this season, scoring 16 tries in 11 games, before this weekend's game with Belgium, placed 26th in the world rankings.

The Rugby Europe Championship concludes in March, with Portugal leading candidates to meet favourites Georgia, winners of the past five editions, in the final.

"It's really difficult for us to set expectations because we don't know what to expect from the new group, new staff, how we will adapt," Storti said.

"We try to keep our feet on the ground.

"The goal now is the win against Belgium and go from there."