Germany coach Pablo Lemoine has urged his players to relax against Portugal on Saturday as they attempt to capitalise on an unexpected chance to maintain their Rugby World Cup hopes.
Following a disappointing Rugby Europe Championship campaign in which they lost all five matches while scoring only 34 points, it looked as though the meeting between these two sides would be for a promotion-relegation play-off with Portugal the Rugby Europe Trophy champions.
However, once Belgium, Romania and Spain were handed points deductions for fielding ineligible players during the tournament – which doubled as European qualification for Japan 2019 – Germany were thrust back into contention.
The winner of Saturday’s game against Portugal in Heidelberg will go on to face Samoa home and away for a place in Pool A alongside Ireland, Scotland, hosts Japan and Russia next September.
Lemoine took charge of Germany at the beginning of the year and, having represented Uruguay at two World Cups as a player and one as a coach, he knows what is required to reach the quadrennial tournament.
Experience is critical
“Those [qualification] games are sometimes more difficult than a World Cup game,” he said. “Because when you arrive to the World Cup, you say ‘OK, I will give 100 per cent, I have to play, I have to enjoy it’.
On Saturday, big clash between #Germany (@DRVRugby ) and #Portugal (@PortugalRugby ) for the last European Qualifier round of @rugbyworldcup #RWC2019— Rugby Europe (@rugby_europe) June 13, 2018
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“But those [qualification] games have a lot of pressure on them and definitely that’s a big part for the players, but I think we have an experienced team.”
Ahead of Portugal’s visit, Germany have been able to recall the Heidelberger RK players who had made themselves unavailable for the Rugby Europe Championship.
In a game Lemoine compares to a final, the Uruguayan is confident their experience of collecting domestic silverware, and reaching the 2018 Continental Shield showpiece, could prove vital.
“They’ve played a lot of finals, especially those guys with the Titans (HRK),” he said. “Other players have played in finals this year with second division teams in France, and all those things make an experienced team in critical moments.”
Portugal’s road to the play-off began back in November 2016, and their place in Saturday’s match was secured seven months ago when they defeated the Czech Republic in Oeiras.
A distant dream to chase
Since then, the Portuguese have successfully defended their Rugby Europe Trophy title – claiming a second successive Grand Slam in the process – while they have been made to wait to continue their World Cup odyssey.
“Of course for a game like this, the players are naturally focused and willing to train with commitment and quality,” Portugal coach Martim Aguiar said.
“There is a big gap between the two [World Cup] games, but we never lost the sight of the future ahead.”
Aguiar admitted that Germany will start Saturday’s play-off as favourites, but the hope of playing in Japan means Portugal are not short of motivation.
“Qualification for the World Cup still feels like a distant dream,” he said. “But we have a chance, and while we are able to take the opportunity, we will chase it.”