Portugal play rugby to put a smile on your face and their captain Tomás Appleton desperately hopes they’ll be able to show a wider audience what they are all about by qualifying for next year’s Rugby World Cup in France.
Friday’s winner-takes-all, concluding game of the Final Qualification Tournament, against the USA in Dubai, is conveniently being packaged as a clash of styles.
In one corner, you have the physical, tight play of the US Men’s Eagles and in the other, a Portuguese team hellbent on running the ball at every opportunity. It should make for a fascinating contest with the winner taking their place in Pool C alongside Wales, Australia, Fiji and Georgia.
With former Les Bleus flyer, Patrice “The Bayonne Express” Lagisquet as their head coach, it is perhaps not surprising that Os Lobos play in an easy-on-the-eye manner associated with some of the flamboyant French teams of the 1980s and 90s.
“I think we have different DNAs, I would say so,” said Appleton, acknowledging the differences.
“We really want to play fast rugby, ball in hand, and give our backs every opportunity to run.
“We are pretty confident, I think, after two good wins and from scoring a lot of first-phase tries. That is really good for us.
“It is good to have the partnership of Jerónimo Portela and Samuel Marques again. I think that is fundamental for us, to have a nine and 10 that are used to playing with each other.
“If they are in top form, that is perfect for us, and I think they are in pretty good shape at the moment.”
“We know that the USA have really strong backs and really strong forwards as well and are very physical,” he added, turning his attention to the obstacle in front of his team.
“But I just think we need to focus on our defence and if we do really well on the first and second phase defence, we will be able to stop their momentum. I think that will be one of the keys to the game.”
Mixing it up
Appleton, whose English-sounding surname comes from his Mancunian great-grandfather, is the fulcrum of the Portuguese attack, creating the holes for the devastating runners around him to exploit with his midfield breaks and subtle passes.
In addition to setting up tries for others, though, he scores his fair share as well, including a brace in the second-round win against Kenya, which took his overall tally to 14 from 55 caps.
Os Lobos were rampant last Saturday, scoring 13 tries in total, as Kenya fell to a record 85-0 defeat.
But the manner in which Portugal put Kenya to the sword by mixing their play up was the source of great satisfaction for Appleton.
The 29-year-old centre is all too aware that some of their attacking instincts may have to be curbed against the USA, in a game where you don’t win any prizes for style, just the result.
“We are just focusing on winning and sometimes you need to adapt your game style to win,” he said.
“It is different when you play teams like Hong Kong or Kenya to when you play a team that is more similar to us, like the United States.
“We need to be really clever in the way we play. If we need to play a bit uglier and not play from our 22 and to calm the game down, we are going to do it.
“I think we struggled a bit in the last few years with our set-pieces; we struggled a lot with our maul defence.
“But I think we have changed that and shaped our forwards to get strong in the set-pieces, especially our maul.
“It is way better at the moment and it is easier for us as a team when our maul is a weapon in attack, and I think we showed that last weekend.
“Our (starting) hooker (Mike Tadjer) scored three tries and the other hooker came on and scored a try as well, so I think that is pretty good.”
Portugal made it to Dubai after a third-place finish in the combined standings for the Rugby Europe Championship in 2021 and 2022.
An accomplished 42-14 win over Hong Kong in round one was followed by the big win over Kenya, and now the Men’s Eagles stand between them and only a second Rugby World Cup appearance after Os Lobos debuted in France in 2007.
“We failed to qualify at the first attempt, but we took our lessons from the key games against Romania and Spain and now we have a second chance,” said Appleton, Portugal’s regular captain for the last two years.
“Last time we were a bit nervous and to be honest this week, we are pretty calm and you can feel the confidence amongst the team.”