On paper, at least, this Rugby World Cup could not have started any better for Wales. Two pool games, two bonus-point wins and no suspensions to complicate the equation before next weekend’s pivotal encounter against Australia. Warren Gatland would have definitely settled for that healthy statistical return prior to the squad’s arrival in France.
It also made for a slightly less frantic finish than last week’s humdinger with Fiji, tries from Louis Rees-Zammit, Dewi Lake, Jac Morgan and, belatedly, Taulupe Faletau ultimately easing their side home.
Having originally made 13 changes to the team and had Tommy Reffell pull out on the eve of the match with a tight calf, Gatland will not be overly concerned by the relatively modest nature of his side’s overall performance, not least their lineout inconsistency.
The real beauty of the occasion, though, lay in Portugal’s rousing effort, particularly in the first half. This is a side who shipped a century of points against New Zealand the last time they featured at a World Cup in 2007. Here they were a credit to their nation, playing with verve and spirit and reminding everyone that so-called “tier two” teams can play a bit these days.
Perhaps the evening’s biggest cheer came in the 63rd minute when a clever ploy at the front of a lineout allowed Portugal’s hard-working Nicolas Martins to dive over for a richly deserved score. If the final scoreline looked one-sided, courtesy of Faletau’s bonus-clinching try in added time against 14 men, it was not a true reflection of the gap between the sides.
If Morgan, named man of the match, and Lake, back to lead his side after recovering from a knee injury sustained against England last month, were among the Wales standouts, this is not the last we will hear of Martins, the No 8 Rafael Simões and the twinkling Nuno Sousa Guedes at full-back. Only a failure to nail a couple of early opportunities and some understandable second-half weariness prevented the Portuguese making life even more awkward.
It all made for a grand occasion. Midday rain had given way to a warm sunny afternoon on the Côte d’Azur, temporarily home to a wide range of rugby folk from all over the globe. None are more thrilled to be at this party than the excited Portugal fans, delighted to be back at the top table. Coached by the former French international wing Patrice Lagisquet, here was an eagerly awaited opportunity to make up for lost time.
Nicknamed Os Lobos – there are said to be 300 Iberian wolves still roaming northern Portugal – the white-shirted underdogs looked both hungry and purposeful and initially looked the more threatening team.
They would have taken the lead had a penalty attempt by scrum-half Samuel Marques not grazed an upright and Wales were having to make some important midfield tackles.
It was against the run of play, then, when the ball was moved wide right to Rees-Zammit who chipped ahead and regathered smoothly to put Wales on the board after nine minutes. The winger cheekily marked the moment with a Cristiano Ronaldo-style celebration which, predictably, did not go down terribly well with everyone present.
Undaunted, Portugal came again, fizzing long passes wide and working the galloping Martins through a promising gap. The tall openside still had a lot to do, though, and was hunted down by a determined Faletau, showing an impressive turn of pace for someone whose buildup was interrupted by a calf injury.
Wales, even so, were soon back under further self-inflicted pressure when centre Johnny Williams was sent to the sin-bin for cynically trying to prevent an offload on the floor. Only a last-ditch turnover by Nicky Smith close to his own line prevented a score and Portugal’s kicking game was also frequently impressive.
Two successful 50-22 attempts were particular high points, the second of them providing the platform for Marques to reduce the margin to 7-3. Passing-wise they were also frequently slicker than Wales, the sevens experience of a number of their backs clearly evident as they attempted to keep the ball alive and play with pace.
Wales needed to be more direct and less lateral. Johnny Williams initially looked to have scored only for replays to show the ball had been dislodged from his grasp but Lake made no such mistake on the stroke of half-time to give his side much-needed breathing space.
Morgan added a third try after 56 minutes after which Portugal were always going to struggle to play catch up. They lost their winger Vincent Pinto to an unfortunate red card, his boot seeming to catch Josh Adams accidentally as he swivelled in the air, but Faletau’s late plunge will not be the abiding memory.
Os Lobos have already more than justified their presence in the tournament and left Gatland suitably impressed. “It’s brilliant for the game,” he said. “You don’t want top-tier nations dominating all the time. You want upsets – as long as I’m not a part of it.”