Rugby union, like any sport, is richer and more engaging when observers can discern different playing styles. And the World Cup should be a showcase of such variety.
For that reason, Portugal’s return to the top table, in a 28-8 loss to Wales on Saturday, was both captivating and refreshing. Nicolas Martins, their outstanding flanker, explained afterwards that it had been a case of Os Lobos simply staying true to themselves.
“It’s in our DNA to play like that,” he said. “We are not strong, but we are fast and we can handle. That’s our identity; we can do something different. I think playing like that can give us opportunity.”
Sixteen years after it opened, the club of World Cup try-scorers for Portugal has another member. Back in 2007, they crossed the whitewash once in each of their four group-stage losses to Scotland, New Zealand, Italy and Romania.
They did so again during their loss to Wales at the weekend, courtesy of the excellent Martins. The well-worked try encapsulated an intrepid and skilful team performance and David Gérard, their forwards coach, was credited for sharp pre-game analysis.
“It was a weakness we saw on video,” Martins explained. “The coach prepared this line-out and we already had it in the bag. We did the moves and I saw the guy was alone. Normally we should have done a maul but I saw the guy was alone, so I go in and I’m really happy to score.”
“It was our first of the World Cup,” he added. “I pray to have more.”
The evidence suggests Portugal will indeed manage further tries over the remainder of their pool matches against Georgia, Australia and Fiji.
Martins’ effort arrived at the beginning of the second quarter. Karl Dickson has just penalised Wales for offside and Samuel Marques turns to the corner…
…before nudging into touch:
Gérard, a former lock for Toulon, Toulouse and Northampton Saints among others, who won a single cap for France, appears to be signalling for a planned ploy:
As he takes the ball and prepares to throw into the line-out, hooker Mike Tadjer smiles:
Portugal’s players were spurred by the rousing crowd and at this stage, volume is increasing:
Now, it is worth surveying the set-piece. Portugal have set up a six-man line-out with Joao Granate in the receiver slot. This set-up will often foreshadow a drive.
Martins, who stands 6ft 5in and is a springy jumper, stands at the front. Christ Tshiunza is already pointing towards him, clearly earmarking him as a target for the throw.
Corey Domachowski, at the front for Wales, is the key defender:
The subtlest actions in line-outs can make all the difference and Martins’ dummy jump is significant:
He ends up outside of the line-out. Meanwhile, Diogo Hasse Ferreira moves past him to lift Rafael Simões:
Tadjer’s throw finds its man…
…and even this twist from Simões at the top of his jump will have been part of the plan. It is another detail that sells the maul to Wales in a bid to make Domachowski burrow into a counter-drive:
Sure enough, he does. And, with perfect timing, without even looking at his team-mate, Simões finds Martins with a quick transfer rather than dropping and slipping the ball to Granate:
Portugal explicitly evade the arm wrestle of a maul to dart into space, like a boxer bobbing and weaving and using their jab to keep a rival at distance.
Martins, who plays for Soyaux-Angoulême in the French second tier, was at the heart of other bright moments for Portugal. He jumped to steal this line-out in the second period:
Much before that, early in the first half, he sparked a flowing foray by cutting an angle close to the breakdown and offloading to Simões, who in turn flicked the ball out of contact to Granate:
Less than 48 hours before Portugal’s exploits in Nice, Uruguay had ruffled France with another wholehearted display that was underpinned by tenacity yet also featured intuitive movement of the ball towards space.
Nicolás Freitas scored from Felipe Etcheverry’s cross-field chip…
….before Baltazar Amaya arced around Arthur Vincent to finish off some net phase play:
Martins revealed that Portugal had been inspired by Los Teros, who went down 27-12 in Lille.
“Uruguay competed against France; who maybe thought that they were stronger than them,” he said. “Now, I think that all big countries are going to be a bit scared by small countries who can do things flashy, with speed. I think it’s going to be good for the future of the competition.”
Tier-two nations need more opportunities
Innovation and accuracy are helping these so-called ‘tier two’ sides to survive. What they need after this tournament are further opportunities to level the playing field so they can thrive. Andy Robinson, the ex-Romania head coach, told Telegraph Sport in 2022 that a Six Nations relegation play-off would be welcome even if it took a decade for the Rugby Europe champions to win one and achieve promotion. The motivation that would generate, he argued, was key.
Martins cited last year’s fixture against Italy, which Portugal lost 38-31, as an example of more encouraging defiance. In the short term, Patrice Lagisquet’s pack must face up to the scrummaging muscle of Georgia and hope to rectify the fragility that hurt them against Wales. Beyond that, more regular encounters against elite opposition should drive them to greater heights.
“In our competition, Six Nations Two [the Rugby Europe Championship], we play against Poland or Belgium,” Martins said. “It’s not good to say this, but they are weaker than us. If we want to compete against higher-level teams, big countries.
“Our next objective is to win. We think we can win against Georgia. We have shown a lot of things in this game [against Wales]; bad things but also good things. We have to prepare well for this [Georgia] game because it’s going to be tough.”