Loose Pass

Date published: February 21 2017

This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with dispatches from the provinces and the saddest news of the weekend…

Portuguese poise polishes off Polish

Loose Pass went outside the mainstream this week to see what’s cooking in the lower levels of European international competition. Specifically, we were at the Estadio Nacional Jamor in Lisbon, to see Portugal attempt to maintain their bid to bounce back up into the Nations Cup Division 1a.

The opposition was Poland, of whom your correspondent knew very little and was able to find out little more. Five of the Polish team were drawn from French teams, which sounded like it might be intimidating, but closer inspection revealed that most of these were French teams from significantly below the Top 14 or ProD2.

Meanwhile, the locals were very cautious with confidence ahead of the game. “We’ve dropped down a lot in the last few years, since our World Cup in France,” said one local club coach.

“I don’t really know why. We have a lot of good players, but they don’t seem to always want to come to play and a lot of them go to France and are not seen again. But I think there is an improvement now this year. The Federation has stated that the aim is the World Cup in 2023.”

It turned out to generally be a tremendous rugby day. The stadium sits high up on a hill in the middle of town, surrounded by a vast and rolling multi-sport complex.

Several of the pitches down the hill were turned over to a large mini-rugby tournament comprising teams from U8 to U12. Twenty-one clubs were represented overall. Particularly encouraging were the skill levels of some of the youngsters, in the light of Ben Ryan’s comments about rugby skill development over the weekend. There are few things more heart-warming than seeing four pitches full of rugby-playing nippers.

Also playing out on one of the pitches was a small triangular Sevens tournament between Portugal, Spain and Ireland.

“It’s outside the national competition circuit window,” said one Portuguese player. “But getting these things together is so important to make us better and prepare us better for the next round in the international series.”

He had a couple of things to say about the national side as well: “The team is really young now. There’s a couple of old guys who’ll add experience for the next three or four years until the youngsters mature. Aside from them I don’t think there’s anyone over 23 in the team. It’s a much more organised strategy now.”

As for the game, it didn’t quite pan out as the observer had anticipated. Portugal’s side looked decidedly lightweight as they came out from the subterranean tunnel. Poland’s front row lumbered up the steps looking as though they’d eaten another front row for their matchday breakfast.

There was little to pick in size between a couple of the Polish backs and the Portuguese props, while the Portuguese scrum-half looked – from distance and with all things relative – worryingly similar in stature to some of the kids who had been on the lower pitches that morning (although on closer inspection, the beard was a distinguisher). You felt that whatever Portugal might offer might ultimately be simply obliterated physically.

For the first ten minutes the match followed the script, and Poland led 3-0, roared on by no fewer than eight magnificently vocal fans. But the fitness levels were evidently vastly different, which helped the hosts’ skills shine.

Three quickfire tries, including a sensational burst from Portuguese loosehead Bruno Medeiros which maintained the similarities between Portuguese props and Polish backs, and a fabulous solo try from outstanding centre Tomas Appleton put the hosts 21-3 ahead. Remarkably too, Portugal’s scrum began to dominate as Poland visibly wilted.

Poland did manage to get on the scoresheet just before the break from a set of close range forward bursts, but another try early in the second half restored Portgual’s advantage and their fitness ensured that Poland rarely threatened thereafter. In the final minute, number eight Vasco Mendes completed the win by driving into three tired Polish defenders and reaching out a big arm to plonk the ball over the line and under both poles and Poles.

Hundreds of kids flooded the pitch at the final whistle, a throwback to the less clinical days of international rugby. It was fun.

Portugal’s attempt to storm the summit of Division 1b continues in a fortnight against Holland in Amsterdam, the top of the table clash in the division. If they play like this, it’ll be worth a watch.

Sobering thoughts

Loose Pass was only once fortunate enough to have a chat with Dan Vickerman, many years ago, but found him to be thoroughly worthwhile company when talking about both rugby and things beyond.

Funny and intelligent with his observations on the game and its place in the world, he gave the impression of someone who was very much in control and happy with his life path.

Someone who did so much to help other players with his RUPA activities, the inexplicability of his sudden passing has been very hard to observe and process logically.

It should serve notice to all in our sport, from top levels to bottom levels, that rugby’s camaraderie and brothership needs to extend well beyond the macho and the beers, that we should always keep an eye out for a mate who might not be dealing with things as well as we think.

RIP Dan Vickerman. Sorely missed from the game.

Loose Pass compiled by former Planet Rugby Editor Danny Stephens.