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'The All Blacks played at a different speed, that was the problem!'

Portuguese rugby is excited about a new generation of players that has emerged at U20 level.

LUÍS PISSARRA WAS there in 2007 when Portugal qualified for the World Cup for the first and only time in their rugby-playing history.

He was vice-captain and scrum-half when that squad of largely amateur Portuguese players was beaten 108-13 by New Zealand in the pool stages, a tough day but also an unforgettable experience.

“They played at a different speed, that was the problem!” recalls Pissarra with a laugh. “I’ve played against bigger players, the All Blacks are not huge in physical terms.

Rugby Union - IRB Rugby World Cup 2007 - Pool C - New Zealand v Portugal - Stade Gerland Pissarra [9] looks to halt Sione Lauaki. Source: Mike Egerton

“The Romanians and Georgians we always played against were much bigger, but the pace the All Blacks put into the game and the sheer speed they played at, their skills, that was the amazing stuff.”

Pissarra was a vet when he lined out against the Kiwis that day in Lyon, and he still is.

Like him, most of that Portugal group had to ask for four months off work to prepare for and compete in that World Cup. There were a couple with professional experience, like one-time Munster centre Diogo Mateus, but that was an exception to the rule.

It was quite literally a bunch of amateurs against genuine professionals, and Portugal lost their other pool games to Scotland, Italy and Romania, although only narrowly missing out on an historic victory over the Romanians, who were saved by a late winning try.

Still, the memories are fond.

“When we played games in Portugal, the most people that we’d get would be around 10,000 or 12,000,” recalls Pissarra. “When we arrived to the first game in Saint-Étienne to play Scotland, kilometres before the stadium we were seeing Portuguese flags.

“100 metres from the stadium, there was a huge crowd with all our families and lots of people we didn’t know cheering us in. It was a very emotional moment.”

Portugal were mismatched on the pitch but it was an achievement even to be there and the hope was that they would push on as a rugby nation and be consistent contenders for World Cup qualification alongside Georgia and Romania.

Pissarra had also captained Portugal to victory in the 2003/04 European Nations Cup – the Six Nations B – and it had looked like that era was a sign of things to come.

However, Portugal have regressed since their 2007 days in the sun, to the extent that their senior men’s team were relegated from the second tier of European rugby last season, into a division that includes Switzerland, Moldova and Poland.

It has been a difficult time for rugby in Portugal, but there is excitement growing once again with the emergence of a new crop of talented young Portuguese players who are determined to drag their nation back into the limelight.

Having earned 75 caps during his playing days, Pissarra is now head coach of the Portugal U20s team and guided his ambitious group of players to success in the Rugby Europe U20 Championship – the U20 Six Nations B – two weeks ago.

It was a major moment for Portuguese rugby, as Pissarra’s team overcame hosts Romania and then beat neighbours Spain 12-7 in the final in Bucharest thanks to a 78th-minute try.

Trophy success means Portugal have qualified for the 2017 World Rugby U20 Trophy in Uruguay – the winner of which is promoted into next year’s World Rugby U20 Championship, the tournament in which top-tier nations like Ireland compete.

It has been about trying to get the focus of the kids onto doing big things for Portuguese rugby,” says Pissarra when reflecting on their Rugby Europe U20 Championship success.

“In the past, Portugal had some pride in our national side and it’s the thing we’re trying to get into these kids.

“They’re focused on helping to bring Portuguese rugby to a better level than we’re at at the moment. They’re keen on that, and quite confident they can do it. This tournament was proof that they are capable of bringing Portugal to a higher level.”

Anyone who tuned into the excellent live streams provided by Rugby Europe would have been impressed with Portugal’s brand of rugby in Romania, as they showed ambition with ball in hand and struck dangerously on counter-attack.

“That’s been our style for some years, although it was forgotten at times and we tried to play a bit more physically than we should,” says Pissarra.

“This is the style that brought us our biggest achievements. These kids are confident and our job is to develop that and tell them to have a go – ‘If you see something, go for it.’”

Portugal U20

Fullback Manuel Cardoso Pinto scored a stunning try [above] in the victory over Romania, countering from his own tryline, with the video subsequently going viral on Portuguese social media – as did footage of their remarkable tryline defence in the closing minutes of the game.

“It was funny because in the first half Manuel was getting the ball and he ran a couple, but kicked others,” explains Pissarra.

“At half time he said, ‘I’m feeling really confident, I think I’m going to counter-attack a couple of times.’ The first one he got, he scored that try!”

Portugal’s U20 stars all play in the senior national club championship, which Pissarra rates as roughly equal to Spanish club rugby in terms of its quality, while they are nearly all pursuing university degrees or have jobs.

Highly-promising centre Vasco Ribeiro, wing Antonio Vidinha, lock/flanker Manuel Eusebio, and hooker Nuno Mascarenhas are already senior internationals for Portugal, so it would seem natural that some of this U20 squad have professional ambitions in rugby.

Pissarra explains that while that is the case for some players, actually keeping Portuguese youngsters in the sport and available to the national team is more of a concern at present.

There’s some of that talk among the kids about going professional and it would be good for the development of our rugby, but the thing is that players in other countries see a professional rugby career as their life. In Portugal, we still have our social culture.

“Most of the players want to finish their university degrees and then after that, see what happens. It’s tough to keep them on the path of following through into an international career.

“Some of them start their international career quite early but they drop out because they have to work and their life takes them another way. Some players have gone to France to lower leagues and they didn’t improve at all as players, they actually dropped some of their skills.”

Pissarra is hopeful that the Portuguese Rugby Federation can help young players to find opportunities that don’t involve moving to poorly-run French clubs, but he stresses that simply keeping them available to the national team has always been the real challenge.

“Some of them want to follow a professional career but they probably need some help from the union to get them to good places where they can really develop and not waste their qualities.

“We could follow the example of you guys in Ireland or in the UK, having some sponsors who give you a job and you can try to have a career that allows you time still to train. That hasn’t happened much.

“Even our senior national team, the guys are quite young and that’s a problem that we really must look at. We can’t just lose those players and see guys stop playing at international level.”

But Pissarra is encouraged by what his U20 team are demonstrating. The players work hard on analysis, push themselves physically and recover intelligently. Most of all, they want to bring Portuguese rugby to the highest level they can.

Pissarra understands the strain that will involve as their working and family lives begin to demand attention, but he feels there is something about this group that was present in the squad that went all the way to the 2007 World Cup.

The group that qualified for the World Cup, it was a big thing to achieve,” says Pissarra. “Some of us were struggling in our family lives and stuff like that, there was talk about stopping playing rugby. It was supposed to be a hobby and it took a lot of time.

“But then we made a pact that we were going to put everything we had into that qualification. We did it and things turned out well. After the World Cup, a few of us had to stop playing and the union tried to develop rugby in a different way.

“Some money got involved but it wasn’t real professionalism. It was doing the same thing and getting paid, so things got a bit strange at that point. We couldn’t get back to the same level as before.”

That injection of money into Portuguese rugby did not last long and the union is struggling financially again now. It would be easy for Pissarra and the countless other coaches in developmental roles in Portugal to despair, but instead they are excited.

There has been greatly increased media attention on rugby since the U20 Championship success, while the team received a governmental congratulations and there was even a crowd waiting in Lisbon airport for their return from Romania.

Rugby Union - IRB Rugby World Cup 2007 - Pool C - Italy v Portugal - Parc des Princes Pissarra gets a pass away against Italy at the 2007 World Cup. Source: EMPICS Sport

Portuguese rugby has a long road ahead if it is to reach former heights, but Pissarra believes these young men can make an impact.

“I do have strong hopes,” says the former scrum-half. “When I started playing in the national team, the union was struggling and there were difficulties with money, but we managed to build a group that lived on until 2007.

“I really hope that this will be a time when things happen the same way. The union is struggling but we’re managing to get some results with the kids and the senior side is trying. I hope we can go the same way as back then.”

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Murray Kinsella

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