A time to remember: Portugal at RWC 2007
In the latest of our articles reflecting on significant moments in Rugby World Cup history, we relive Portugal's debut tournament in 2007.
Winning the Rugby World Cup is a challenge for the ages. It has proven too great an obstacle for some of the sport’s greatest players, coaches and teams. In such a rarefied atmosphere, is it possible that simply taking part can mean as much for some as lifting the Webb Ellis Cup? In the case of Portugal in 2007, the answer is yes.
The road to any Rugby World Cup is fraught with danger. The Game’s emerging nations must travel far and wide and endure high-risk matches at every corner if they are to dine at the top table. With European qualifying on the horizon – Hungary face Bulgaria in Kecskemét in the opening match on 6 October – players across the continent will be hoping to emulate Portugal’s achievements in the build up to France 2007.
Os Lobos scraped into the reckoning in dramatic fashion, beating Uruguay 24-23 on aggregate over two legs after a gruelling qualifying campaign. They were the 20th and final team to book their place, thanks to the Répechage. Widely expected to crumble at the first sign of danger, the Portuguese displayed a stubborn streak a mile wide when they finally made their tournament bow as the sole debutants among a cast of stars.
Proving that there is nowhere to hide on the big stage, Portugal faced the All Blacks in their second match, having been beaten with a degree of ease by Scotland in their first. New Zealand, who would eventually be toppled by France in the quarter finals, went into the match on the back off a 76-14 rout of Italy. The Azzurri had folded all too easily, shipping five tries in the opening 18 minutes, and the omens were not good for Portugal.
Few 16-try, 100-point defeats are events to savour for the losing side. In reality, they provide little cheer for either team in many instances. But Portugal’s efforts were something to be proud of. They outlasted Italy, conceding only twice in the opening 25 minutes, and scored a second-half try through replacement prop Rui Cordeiro. Joe Rokocoko, Aaron Mauger and Conrad Smith all bagged braces to take the All Blacks through the century barrier, but there was praise for both sides at the final whistle.
David versus Goliath
“I was delighted with the way the guys handled the game, showed their skills and treated the opposition with dignity,” All Blacks coach Graham Henry said. “I hope Portugal are also pleased. They seemed to be happy after the game.”
Among the crowd that day was Errol Brain, the former Blues, Chiefs and New Zealand Maori back row who would become Portugal’s head coach in 2010.
“It was a fantastic rugby day,” he recalled. “I suppose that’s the most enduring memory I have of that occasion. It was almost like David versus Goliath in terms of the All Blacks, a fully professional side, against a team like Portugal, which is amateur.
“That day showed me what’s really good about rugby, what differentiates it from other sports – the passion, the support and the way the players approached the game. That was a really strong memory and one that I’ll have for a long, long time.”
The match certainly had a galvanising effect on Portugal, who then prevented Italy from racking up a bonus-point only a year after losing 83-0 to the same opponents during qualifying. Their only major disappointment was to come in their final match, in which they led Romania into the dying stages before losing 14-10.
Overcoming a challenge
Following the tournament, something of a hangover set in. The squad’s veterans – Cordeiro and Joaquim Ferreira – hung up their boots, and Portugal slumped to a fifth-placed finish in the European Nations Cup. Two years later there was more disappointment as they failed to make the Répechage during qualifying for Rugby World Cup 2011, the result of a fourth-place European Nations Cup finish following home losses to Georgia, Russia and Romania.
Hope springs eternal however, and with Rugby World Cup 2015 looming into view the qualifying race is all set to get underway again with another edition of the European Nations Cup between 2012 and 2014. On this occasion, Portugal will be joined by reigning champions Georgia, Romania, Russia, Spain and Belgium in Division 1A, and Brain has been striving to bring his men up to speed.
“I’ve been here for nearly two years now and in that time it’s been a challenge, in the sense that we don’t have an over-abundance of players that can play at international level, so we’ve had to work really hard with our academy system here in Portugal,” he said.
“We’ve had to really develop players, not only technically and tactically, but also physically and mentally, to try and get them up to speed to play these games. It’s been a challenge but leading into next year’s qualification games, we’re about right at the moment. Time will tell if that’s the case.”
Since Rugby World Cup 2011, Brain has watched as Russia, coached by former Wales flanker Kingsley Jones, have closed the gap on Georgia and Romania. Portugal face the Bears at home in round four of the European Nations Cup next March and Brain has already pinpointed the match as a must-win.
Preparation the key
“I’ve noticed a change in them in the last two years and particularly after the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand last year,” he said. “They’ve really gone ahead in terms of the style of game they want to play, in terms of the athletes they’re developing. They’re going to be very, very difficult. It’s very important we win that game.
“Then there are teams that have a lot of World Cup experience, like Georgia and Romania. They’re the other two sides that have a lot of experience and a lot of their players playing abroad in places like France. It’s a real challenge but there are no surprises. We’ve got to worry about what we can control, and that’s working hard as individuals and collectively as a group.”
Portugal want to play with speed, which suits Brain just fine after his rugby upbringing in New Zealand. He hopes to give his players the self belief to back themselves and their instincts against the big names, possibly laying the foundations for another run at the Rugby World Cup.
“Wherever you’re from, New Zealand, Portugal, Spain, I’ve found that we all have a strong impulse in terms of how rugby should be played. That can be determined by the profile of players that you have, but certainly from my side of things it’s about preparation.
“I’ve really focused on the players working hard off the pitch, to get their rewards on the pitch. Our players like to play the game at pace, which is my background from New Zealand. We’re trying to instill that confidence in the players, so that when they go out and play these big international matches, they can play a style of rugby that suits them and not get caught up in the trench warfare that tends to happen when you play teams like Georgia and Romania. The key thing I keep saying to the players is that it’s all about preparation.”