Portugal’s fallen heroes face very different reception

Having gone from beating Fiji to losing to Belgium, Portugal’s arrival in Lisbon today will feel very different to the heroes’ welcome they received back in October.

Daniel Hourcade’s reign in charge could not have got off to worse start than the 10-6 defeat in Mons in the opening round of the 2024 Rugby Europe Championship, which was broadcast live on RugbyPass TV.

To put it into context, there were eight places and nearly 13 points between Portugal and the higher-ranked Fiji in the World Rugby Men’s Rankings powered by Capgemini when they played each other at RWC 2023 compared to 16 places and just over 18 points between Os Lobos and lowly Belgium.

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The Stade Charles Tondreau was bouncing as the unfancied Black Devils did just enough to hold off a disjointed Portugal whose poor handling was a far cry from the slick play everyone fell in love with in France, the belief in the crowd growing as the clock ticked down in a scoreless second half.

Rewind a few months and it was a very different story.

Portugal’s exploits at Rugby World Cup 2023 in France knocked football off the back pages, and even made it onto the front, and led to the squad meeting sporting royalty like Cristiano Ronaldo as guests of the Portuguese national football team for their game against Slovakia.

Captain Tomás Appleton and the rest of the squad were taken aback by the increased attention, but not in a negative way. The unassuming father-of-one sees it as their duty as ambassadors for a sport that needs all the publicity it can get to ride the wave of interest.

Speaking before the Belgium setback, he said: “I cannot forget the reception at the airport. We arrived and it was hard to get through all the people. There were thousands of kids around us asking for autographs, they were pulling me, and journalists and TV were pulling me, and all the time I could see my family and friends in the distance. I just wanted to be with them, but I couldn’t, not for a long time, but it was all good.”

Appleton cannot walk the streets or have a family meal in a restaurant without being stopped and asked for an autograph but, refreshingly, he doesn’t see this as a tiresome burden, but the opposite in fact.

As much as he is happy to receive the praise, he’s the type of character that will take yesterday’s result against Belgium on the chin.

“I think there are a few reasons why the fans really enjoy Portugal. Of course, we arrived at the World Cup as underdogs – no one expected us to win a game, we have a really attractive style of play, and with us being largely amateur players, it gives something for people to cheer on,” he remarked.

“At the end of the day, we do it for the passion and the love we have for our nation and the love we have for each other as friends. I think you can see that in the way that we play.

“The World Cup is one thing we are all really proud of so it would be impossible for the players not to give the love back to the fans.

“Even now, three or four months on, I still get recognised in the street and when eating out in restaurants. It is nice for people to recognise your efforts.

“I signed thousands of autographs at the World Cup, having signed hardly any before.

“The World Cup has made a massive difference, we have seen a lot more children starting to play rugby.

“It is very important for us in the national team to be inspirations for the kids.”

As a clean-cut figurehead of the Portuguese team, Appleton has understandably attracted lots of commercial interest, while a few professional clubs sounded him out about the prospect of him becoming full-time.

However, the 30-year-old with 66 caps and 16 Test tries to his name, is happy to continue to juggle the demands of work with rugby.

“I was in connection with agents but I did not receive any offer that would make me rethink my life and leave Portugal,” he revealed.

“I am not saying I would never do it but the offer has to really compensate me moving my wife and daughter for a new adventure.”

Appleton prefers to give back to the game rather than take, which is maybe why he specialises in implants rather than root canal surgery in his day-to-day job in dentistry.

Within two weeks of Portugal’s superb Rugby World Cup campaign coming to a close, Appleton was back treating patients at his clinic in Lisbon, but other than that, life has never been the same.

One difference other than the increased scrutiny is the make-up of the Portugal team. While around two-thirds of the Rugby World Cup squad remain in place, key figures like goal-kicking scum-half Samuel Marques and hooker and talisman Mike Tadjer have retired from Test rugby, and their cool heads and experience were badly missed on Saturday.

“We have a lot of challenges with this new group, with a lot of new players coming in, a lot of older players have decided to not play anymore so it is a renewal of the team with new staff,” said Appleton, shortly in the build-up to the Belgium match.

“Daniel Hourcade has come in as coach and he has so much experience, especially with Argentina, so we are really confident with what he is bringing to our team.”

In Saturday’s other game, the Netherlands had a kick to win the game at home to Spain but it went wide and they had to settle for a heroic 20-18 defeat instead.

Georgia begin their quest for a seventh consecutive Rugby Europe Championship title on Sunday, away to Germany, while Poland host Romania in the other match.


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