Portugal thrill to give Wales a scare and show why rugby must broaden the borders

The so-called minnows gave the Welsh a tough first half  (AFP)
The so-called minnows gave the Welsh a tough first half (AFP)

Minnows no more. If there is one thing that is abundantly clear about this Rugby World Cup, it is that the less established nations are here to play. For much of this encounter Portugal bounced around the Stade de Nice like free electrons: all energy, ideas and attacking ambition. It took until 83 minutes had elapsed for Taulupe Faletau to force his way through for a bonus point score as Wales just about escaped with a full five points.

After Uruguay gave France an almighty fright in Lille on Thursday night, Portugal here did likewise to a much-changed Welsh side. Gone are the days of smaller nations turning up hoping to avoid a cricket score, of misjudged howls about player safety and of five points being pre-written in. Uruguay, Chile and Portugal, to name just three, may lack the up-front muscle to match their opponents, but have a clutch of backline dancers each that have relished the chance to strut their stuff across these opening days of the most competitive World Cup yet.

It must be noted, too, that so many of these nations are developing, and with limited opportunities against the world’s top 10.

World rugby must now support these countries more consistently to sustain a sport that needs to broaden its borders. A proposed global league is on the way but that would lock the have nots out – the breadth and depth of talent readily apparent in this opening week needs to be better celebrated.

Regardless of the result, it was a proud day already for Patrice Lagisquet’s men, making a World Cup return after 16 years away from rugby’s biggest stage. Their fans had travelled in good number, blending into the red sea of Welsh support, but offering aural accompaniment with cries of “Por-tu-gal!” punctuating every pause.

After just 15 minutes, the neutrals were joining in, too, enlivened by a breathless start. Portugal should have had the lead, too, scrum half Samuel Marques recording an uncharacteristic miss from the tee, before Wales made them pay.

After initial inroads up the left, the ball was swept out to the right, where Jac Morgan – called into the starting side minutes before kick off after an injury to Tommy Reffell – dodged a low tackler and put Louis Rees-Zammit into space. A deft dribble ahead for himself off his right boot and Rees-Zammit was in, celebrating with a nod to Cristiano Ronaldo.

But Portugal had already shown glimpses of what they might be able to do in wide channels. Plenty of the backs in their squad have spent times on the sevens circuit and have the confidence to back themselves in space – and the dexterity to unfurl an offload if required.

Louis Rees-Zammit scores for Wales (Getty)
Louis Rees-Zammit scores for Wales (Getty)

With Marques controlling affairs from scrum half and full back Nuno Sousa Guedes an instant charmer on the counterattack with his snaking hips and frisky feet, Portugal’s free thinking, free running style caused plenty of problems. Guedes very nearly created an opener, linking up with Nicolas Martins after one counterattacking caper, but Taulupe Faletau was able to reel the flanker in.

Johnny Williams was sent to the sin bin for a cynical block of an attempted offload; it took two bits of fine defensive intervention from Leigh Halfpenny to deny Portugal a try that they most certainly would have merited. Soon after, Marques made amends for an earlier miss from the tee to get Portugal on the board.

Holding out to half time was clearly the key, but Wales, restored to 15, found a score. Centre Williams lost control having appeared to have burrowed over but captain Dewi Lake made no mistake, finding the portcullis up having charged straight and hard at the Portuguese defensive wall after a tapped penalty.

Wales found the weak points and exploited them. The scrum had been an issue all day and with Portugal given a final warning after a set piece infringement, Warren Gatland’s side went to their power game. Morgan punched over from short range.

And then came the Portuguese eruption. Wales infringed inside their own 22 and the corner was found, allowing Mike Tadjer and his pack to work a nifty routine. A throw to the middle was dropped down to the front, where Martins collected the autumn fall to leave even the Welsh fans on their feet.

Tadjer, meanwhile, celebrated with two great pumps of the air, fist lifted to the heavens. The hooker made his international debut in 2011, born in Massy on the outskirts of Paris but a committed international to the country of his father throughout a decade at the coal face in French professional rugby.

The emotional release was all too apparent: this was a moment of pride and perseverance, true to so many in this side. When Gareth Davies’s bonus point score was chalked off for obstruction, it felt, oddly, like justice done, but here was a moment late on to take the gloss off, Vincent Pinto clumsy and careless in thrusting a blind boot towards a chasing Josh Adams.

A tearful Pinto’s sanction was upgraded to a red card moments after Faletau had the final word. But it could not dim the brightness of Os Lobos’ performance – Wales may have won, but it was, undoubtedly, Portugal’s day.