To be a top-class goalkicker you need nerves of steel as well as a trustworthy technique. Samuel Marques proved he has both when he kicked the last-gasp penalty that earned his side a place at Rugby World Cup 2023 as winners of the Final Qualification Tournament.
The scrum-half has been a regular source of points for his country with his accurate goal-kicking ever since he returned to national team duties in 2021 following an eight-year hiatus, but none were more important than the three he kicked against the USA with the clock in the red in Dubai last Friday.
A word to the wise
Until Marques, 32, stepped up to level the scores at 16-16, Portugal faced the prospect of another Rugby World Cup passing them by.
Some of his teammates dared not look as he lined up the kick, and others couldn’t take their eyes off the career-defining moment. For Raffaele Storti, whose try-scoring exploits have been every bit as influential in helping Portugal get to France next year, it was a mixture of the two emotions but he definitely was not lost for words.
“I couldn’t stop looking for a second. I was so excited and nervous at the same time that I went to Sam and told him the whole of Portugal was counting on him,” the winger revealed.
“Probably it wasn’t the smartest thing to say as he had already enough pressure to handle, but it just slipped out of me, I said it without even thinking.
“Fortunately, he is a player with a lot of experience and knows how to handle the pressure well.”
Qualification for a second Rugby World Cup looked improbable when the USA, leading by three points, were five metres from the Portugal line with five minutes to go.
At that point, Kapeli Pifeleti had cancelled out an early try for Storti and USA captain AJ MacGinty had slotted three penalties to Marques’ two for a 16-13 lead.
But Portugal, and Marques especially, kept their nerve to take their place in Pool C alongside Wales, Australia, Fiji and Georgia at next year’s tournament.
“Personally I am very excited about the World Cup especially because we’ll have the opportunity to compete against the best teams in the world, with a lot of visibility. This will allow us to show all our qualities, individually and as a team, which I am sure it will surprise a lot of rugby fans,” added Storti.
“To finally have the opportunity to compete against these “giants” in such big stadiums, with a crowd full of Portuguese fans, it is everything we fought for. We’ll have the opportunity to show all our qualities and, hopefully, bring some joy to our supporters with wins.”
Storti, who has scored 13 tries in 18 tests, insists Portugal won't be going to France to just make up the numbers, with automatic qualification for Rugby World Cup 2027 – through a top-three pool finish – the target.
“We are clearly the underdogs of the group since we’re not even a fully professional team. However, we’re not thinking about that, we’ll think match by match, and prepare for each game like it’s a final and give our best.
“We’ve already proven we are a competitive team that can play positive rugby against top teams as well.
“Examples of this were our draw against Georgia in Tbilisi in the Six Nations B (Rugby Europe Championship) in 2022 or the narrow loss against Japan in 2021.
“We are not going to the Rugby World Cup just to have fun, we have objectives and the third place is the main one.”
Qualification for their first Rugby World Cup since 2007 and only their second ever was celebrated long and hard before they returned home to Portugal to receive a heroes’ welcome.
“It was unforgettable, I have never seen the team so happy,” said Storti, about the post-match scenes.
“In Dubai, we all went partying together, staff and players, and it was really funny. It was clear that we had become more than a team throughout the years, but really good friends.”
A new era
When Storti came into the senior Portuguese national team in 2019 as a product of the country’s successful U20 team, Os Lobos were still in the second tier of Rugby Europe’s competition structure.
It wasn’t until the following year that they won promotion to the Rugby Europe Championship and started to become a force again under head coach Patrice Lagisquet.
The appointment of Lagisquet was a masterstroke and Storti credits the former France winger for setting out a clear direction for the team and getting buy-in from everyone involved.
“Before Patrice came, the national team wasn’t competitive and there was not a goal ambitious enough to make players forget about their other duties.
“As rugby is amateur in Portugal, players had other jobs and priorities. Also, some of the pro-players playing abroad didn’t want to risk getting injured or being dropped out from their clubs, so chose not to represent Portugal.
“However, with the arrival of the new staff and the promotion of Portugal to the Six Nations B, a new goal and hope emerged – Rugby World Cup 2023 qualification.
“When Patrice came in he not only brought a lot of knowledge and experience to the group but also different rules and demands of the players.
“In my opinion, it was this collective ambition, together with the new expertise brought from the new staff (Lagisquet, Herve Durquety, João Mirra, Luis Pissarra) that were the keys to our success.”