The Blues are now considered serious contenders for Rugby World Cup 2023, not only because they are hosts, but also because of the harvest of talented young people who drive the team forward.
Portugal may be operating at a lower level, but they have also shown a willingness to invest in youth, with a good proportion of the teams having finished on the podium three times in a row. World Rugby Trophy U20 tournaments now playing influential roles in Os Lobos’ bid to qualify for their second Rugby World Cup only.
“We all know the French had a U20 world champion team, and they brought a lot of their players to the senior squad, and we also had very good results, especially in the World Rugby U20 Trophy,” said Appleton. .
“We are building a strong squad and of course our main goal is to be at the Rugby World Cup in 2023 in France.”
Like France, Portugal has two U20 graduates vying for the number 10 jersey. For Romain Ntamack and Matthieu Jalibert swap Jorge Abecasis, and his successor in the U20, Jerónimo Portela.
“They are amazing players and although both are still very young, they have experienced professional rugby environments abroad,” said Appleton, who plays his club’s rugby with 20-time Portugal CBUL champion.
“Jerónimo was a bit unlucky. Due to the COVID situation, he had to return from South America. But he was starting to build something on a professional level.
“And Jorge, in 2017 or 2018, I think he was, went to the Crusaders high performance academy in Christchurch and he came back with a really good grasp of the game and was more physical and faster.
At the other end of the age scale is Samuel Marques, Portugal’s kicking scrum half.
Marques, a Top 14 player in France with Pau, ended his eight year exile with the national team when he started the first round loss to Georgia and added a lot to the squad.
As well as contributing nearly half of his team’s points at this year’s European Rugby Championship, the 32-year-old has been a key figure in leading the youngsters around him on the pitch.
“He had a big impact on the team,” said Appleton. “He is in the Top 14 in France and is used to a more competitive environment than the rest of the boys and brings a lot of experience with him. Our team is not that old and sometimes we need players like him to make good decisions and calm things down, and he does it very well.
Appleton, now 27, was a teenager when Portugal made their Rugby World Cup debut in France in 2007 and would love to lead the team there as one of Europe’s direct qualifiers.
“There was a lot of hype around rugby at that time (2007), and I was lucky to be in France, at an international U15 tournament, when the World Cup was underway and I went see Portugal’s match against Italy in Paris, ”he said.
Company for two
For the Rugby World Cup 2023, Europe obtained two automatic qualification places, with the two upper sides, after the results of the European Rugby Championship 2021 and 2022 are taken into account, claiming the places reserved for Europe 1 and Europe 2.
Currently, Portugal sit second behind Georgia and are on track to face reigning world champions South Africa, Ireland, Scotland and Asia / Pacific 1.
“Second place is our main goal, but we are also realistic enough to know that two years ago we were playing at a lower level, against players like Czechia and Ukraine,” said Appleton, aware that Portugal must not forget not to go too far. of themselves when so much rugby remains to be played.
Portugal are only three games away in what is effectively a 10-game qualifying campaign, and have only won once, but there were plenty of positives to be drawn from losses against Georgia (29- 16) and Romania (28-27) and the 43-28 victory against Spain.
“For the game against Georgia, we knew from the start that it would be the toughest game because they are, I think, the favorites of this group,” recalled Appleton, who is approaching half a century of selections for. his country.
“We must not forget that in November we were playing in a series against Brazil and that Georgia played England, Wales, Ireland and Fiji in the Fall Nations Cup. So there is a big difference.
“I think we did well every now and then, and at halftime we were winning. But in the end, their physical strength prevailed. It was a little hard to lose the losing bonus point on the last play of the match.
“At the start of the match against Romania, we wanted to do well and we started very well. We were comfortable on the scoreboard but had terrible lineups and didn’t handle the game very well and lost at the last minute on a test of a driving maul.
“There were a few losses that were difficult to take, but this one was a really big punch in the stomach.
“Against Spain, it was a little different. It was a kill or die game and we knew we had to step in. It took a while to find each other but we evolved in the game and our forwards gave us a good offensive structure to score and the full backs did very well.
“It was really good to be on a high note as the games against Russia and Belgium or the Netherlands arrive. I think it will be good for us to play in July; Portuguese players love to play in the sun. “
Halfway to paradise
Once these matches are over, Portugal and the rest of the European Rugby Championship teams will be halfway through their qualification campaigns.
Having attended a Rugby World Cup as a wide-eyed spectator, Appleton would love nothing more than to get there as a player and have the support of the large Portuguese diaspora in France.
“There are more than a million Portuguese in Paris,” he stressed. “To play a Rugby World Cup in France would be amazing. “
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Photo: Luis Cabelo