State of the Nation: Portugal exceed World Cup expectations as they capture the hearts of fans

Francisco Isaac
Raffaele Storti, Jose Lima, Mike Tadjer and fans of Portugal during the Rugby World Cup.

Raffaele Storti, Jose Lima, Mike Tadjer and fans of Portugal during the Rugby World Cup.

Now that the dust has settled on another memorable Rugby World Cup, we bring you our State of the Nations pieces, with Patrice Lagisquet’s Portugal up next.

Os Lobos thrilled fans in France and earned their first-ever victory on the main rugby stage, making it a memorable year for Portuguese rugby.

Before the tournament started, Portugal was listed as the Emerging Nation with the lowest chance of securing a victory, but after its conclusion, fans might have felt that the Portuguese could have won more than one game.

Tournament summary

From not qualifying for the World Cup to being offered a late chance to get on board to France, Portugal has come a long way, and the 2023 Rugby World Cup was mostly seen as a prize for their hard work over the past five years. But Lagisquet had other ideas and tackled the World Cup not as the final stage but as a road to show how ambitious and promising the Lobos were, and that opening game against Wales was the first sign.

Portugal produced a fun, aggressive, and risky playing style, pushing for a quicker and more intense game, trying to sow chaos while at the same time controlling and weaponizing it. Those two 50:22s done in a matter of milliseconds or that offensive Nuno Sousa Guedes run out of the blue raised the roof in Nice, and it was the best calling card for what to expect from Portugal for the next three games.

It was clear the Lobos still had some issues to work on, be it the wobbly scrum or the inability to remain calm and patient inside the opposition 22, but the physicality, game-plan and defensive strategy were there and ready to take them to this next level.

And what better way to reach the next step of the rugby ladder than to take on your long-time rivals, Georgia? In the only draw of the World Cup, Portugal was able to turn around after a dismal first half, following Raffaele Storti’s lead, and would dominate that second period, coming close to their first World Cup victory.

Guedes’ kick wasn’t destined to go through the posts, and both Rugby Europe’s counterparts shared the bittersweet spoils of war. Though it was a draw, the Portuguese mounted an impressive display in the second half, finding gaps all over the place, forcing Georgia to concede several scrum penalties and even push the Lelos back from the maul. Again, the lack of patience dashed their chances of clinching a win, and the same outcome would happen versus Australia.

Portugal started in the lead, thanks to a stunning Tomás Appleton pass that Pedro Bettencourt finished in a blaze of glory, but everything turned sour when the Oyonnax back was sent to the sin-bin for 10 minutes. The Wallabies would enjoy their best 10 minutes of the 2023 Rugby World Cup and score three uncontested tries, enough to survive a Portuguese wolfpack onslaught in the second half. Yes, seeing an Emerging Nation like Portugal driving back a two-time World Cup champion was truly stunning, but it wasn’t enough to make history, even if the vibes in Saint-Étienne were extremely positive.

But as the old saying goes, “save the best for the last”. the Lobos licked their wounds for a final time and got mentally ready to face Fiji, who were in a tough spot as they needed at least one point to secure a quarter-final qualification. Both nations were able to deliver an instant classic that will be remembered for the ages, be it because of Mike Tadjer’s punt (it gets better every time you rewatch) or Waisea Nayacalevu’s trample, taking the intensity and pace to an unbelievable degree. Tied at half-time, Os Lobos and the Flying Fijians made sure that the last half of the 2023 Rugby World Cup pool stage would be memorable, pushing for a riskier approach, searching for tries and points.

Lagisquet’s men played all over the pitch and made good use of Fiji’s defensive blitz strategy, kicking some smart grubbers, with one of them helping Storti to cross the whitewash. Then they conceded a Fijian try after 20 minutes of delaying it – surviving a 20-phase play at one point – and two penalties, which meant Portugal needed to score a third try to finish in the best possible manner: victorious.

In what can be described as one of the most glorious moments in Portuguese rugby history, a play in the last dying embers of the match made by Storti – who else? – opened a clear shot for Rodrigo Marta to cruise through and cross the whitewash. Samuel Marques, who had already taken a history-defining kick last November in Dubai, was called once again to take the responsibility. The scrum-half didn’t tremble and slotted it.

Portugal held the ball (patiently) in those last two minutes, and Jerónimo Portela kicked it out to end the 2023 campaign with a Cinderella story for a nation that a year and a half ago seemed to have blown their World Cup qualifying hopes.

Portugal exceeded expectations as they finished in fourth spot ahead of Georgia, lost to both Wales and Australia by a margin of 20 points, scored an average of two tries per game, and had a -39 points differential. The set-piece enjoyed a massive transformation, becoming a reliable platform, and the attacking patterns were slick and deadly. Taking all of this into context, their World Cup run should be rated as a B+ or A-.

Standout players

Nicolás Martins’ 2023 season was hugely impressive, even more so as he wasn’t even a starter last year, claiming a place in everybody’s minds by the end of the World Cup. 62 successful tackles in 63 attempts, three turnovers at the breakdown, five lineout steals, four clean breaks and a try were just some of his best stats as the loose forward was vital for how Portugal operated on the pitch.

Raffaele Storti deserves to be applauded for what he did on the wing for Portugal, as his skills changed the course of games and guided Portugal to their destiny. Besides the three tries scored, eight clean breaks, and 24 defenders beaten, the winger injected an insane pace and an unreadable side-stepping skill, helping Os Lobos to find critical attacking opportunities.

Finally, Mike Tadjer. If the Portuguese pack mounted a great performance in the set-piece, the experienced hooker was one of the reasons why, glueing everything together. An above 85% lineout success, Tadjer’s efforts were mesmerizing from start to finish, refusing to give up even when a leg injury tried to creep in. His name will live in the Hall of the Greatest Portuguese Players of All Time, not only for that classy punt but also for his ambition, bravery and pride.

Statistic leaders

Rodrigo Marta finished as the Portuguese player with the most running metres (342), finishing in the top 15 players of the tournament.

Raffaele Storti wrapped up eighth place in the clean breaks chart, achieving eight, the same amount as Georgian rival Davit Niniashvili.

Nicolás Martins finished as the fifth-best tackler in the World Cup, only missing one attempt in 63 attempts, and was one of the top lineout stealers from the pool stage.

Finally, José Madeira was the 10th best breakdown poacher at the World Cup, making five turnovers, the same as master jackler Maro Itoje and All Blacks captain Sam Cane.

Success story

David Costa and Diogo Hasse Ferreira are the success story that needs to be told. The two young props had to, at some point, take over Francisco Fernandes and Anthony Alves’s places in the starting line-up and were able to deliver massively against Georgia and Fiji.

Portugal’s pack purred and worked wonders, silencing those who doubted that they had a steady set-piece. The Lobos were able to build a fine forward-pack machine, and the way it pushed to dominate sides like Australia, Georgia and Fiji will be remembered as the foundations for a brighter future.

Main regret

Not defeating Georgia. Portugal were close to it and had every opportunity to do so. It wasn’t only that last missed kick from Guedes, as the Lobos were inches away from the try-line on three separate occasions. The lack of patience to build phases and a killer instinct hindered them, missing a chance to earn an early win, one that could’ve boosted their chances to fight for third place and automatic qualification for the 2027 Rugby World Cup. Lessons learned.

Results

Portugal v Wales (lost 8-28)
Portugal v Georgia (drew 18-18)
Portugal v Australia (lost 14-34)
Portugal v Fiji (won 24-23)

READ MORE: State of the Nation: Springboks create a lasting legacy with back-to-back Rugby World Cup titles