Wales took another step towards the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals, but they were given a fierce examination by minnows Portugal before winning 28-8 at Stade de Nice.
Warren Gatland’s much-changed team struggled throughout for control and fluency in the Pool C contest, the highlight of which was Portugal’s attacking flair.
Wales started with only three survivors from the side that defeated Fiji last weekend, and their latest performance was a world away from what they delivered in Bordeaux six days ago.
🏉 SGÔR TERFYNOL ⁰⁰🏴 28- 8 🇵🇹
— Welsh Rugby Union 🏴 (@WelshRugbyUnion) September 16, 2023
Wing Louis Rees-Zammit, captain Dewi Lake, flanker Jac Morgan and number eight Taulupe Faletau scored tries, while Leigh Halfpenny kicked three conversions and Sam Costelow landed one, yet a vast improvement will be required against Australia in Lyon next weekend.
Portugal gave as good as they got for large parts of the game, and they undoubtedly deserved more than flanker Nicolas Martin’s try and a Samuel Marques penalty, with Wales not collecting a bonus point until the dying seconds.
Their exciting back division stretched Wales’ defence in all directions, although wing Vincent Pinto blotted the copybook when he was red-carded late in the game following a bunker review after his boot caught Josh Adams in the face.
Wales suffered an injury blow shortly before kick-off when flanker Tommy Reffell withdrew from the starting line-up and was replaced by Morgan.
Portugal, playing their first World Cup game for 16 years, were captained by centre Tomas Appleton and under the coaching direction of former France international wing Patrice Lagisquet.
Marques missed a golden chance to put his team in front when he sent a short-range penalty wide, and Wales went ahead through a ninth-minute try that saw an impressive finish from Rees-Zammit, who then performed a Cristiano Ronaldo-style celebration.
Halfpenny converted, but Portugal showed plenty of adventure in attack and Faletau pulled off a try-saving tackle that preserved Wales’ 7-0 lead after 17 minutes.
It was an impressive effort by the underdogs as their eagerness to move possession wide and at pace tested Wales’ defence.
Wales made errors when they got within sight of Portugal’s line, and an element of frustration was underlined when Johnny Williams received a yellow card following a technical infringement.
It was an outstanding first-half display by Portugal, who were beaten 102-11 on their only previous meeting with Wales in a World Cup qualifier 29 years ago.
Wales just could not get going, compounding their situation through poor work in the contact area, and Marques kicked a penalty three minutes before the break.
Williams then had a try disallowed after he failed to ground the ball, only for Lake to power over from close range, with Halfpenny’s conversion making it 14-3 at the interval.
Wales began the second period by losing two attacking lineouts in quick succession inside Portugal’s 22 and Gatland soon turned to his replacements’ bench, sending on Ryan Elias, Corey Domachowski, Tomas Francis and Adam Beard.
Back-row forward Taine Basham soon followed them into the action and Wales claimed a third try after 56 minutes when Morgan crossed from close range and Halfpenny added the extras.
Portugal deservedly claimed a try midway through the second half when clever lineout work produced a try for Martins. Marques’ touchline conversion attempt hit a post and it was a warning sign to Wales that their opponents had no intention of going quietly.
The closing stages were all about whether or not Wales could secure a bonus point, and they thought they had it when scrum-half Gareth Davies crossed, only to see it disallowed for midfield obstruction.
That summed up Wales’ day, but, after Pinto was dismissed, Faletau scored in the game’s final play and Costelow converted.