Francisco Isaac reviews the ups and downs of the 2016-17 Portuguese season, which saw CDUL lift their 20th Premiership title and AIS Agronomia scoop a cup double
Another year, a new champion for both the Premiership and the national cup, new youngsters stepping into the spotlight, new legends in the making and old wolves still gnarling strongly as ever.
Portuguese rugby continues on its own path, with the majority of the Premiership players being amateur and a very small number deservedly having professional status. Many of the pros are foreign, such as Hamish Graham (CDUL), José Rodrigues and PJ van Zyl (AIS Agronomia), Sam Henwood (AEIS Técnico), Jared Page (GDS Cascais), Ethan Matthews (RC Lousã) and Talalelei Moli (RC Montemor).
GD Direito, CDUP and Acádemica AC didn’t sign any non-Portuguese players.
In the Premiership, CDUL were crowned champions and it was an unexpected triumph. It wasn’t the best season for the side known as Universitários as they finished in third place, which forced them to sweat in the play-offs and survive a tight encounter against former champions GD Direito on their own turf.
The top six go through a knockout stage, with the first play-offs pairing 3 v 6 and 4 v 5. CDUL defeated Técnico 46-15 to move into the semis.
Aussie coach Jack Ferrer, the former head coach of Sydney University, prepared his team well enough to survive and win against Direito’s Pedro Leal, Vasco Uva and Gonçalo Uva.
In the final they met the best team of the season, AIS Agronomia. Led by former international player and national coach Frederico de Sousa, they had finished the regular season top of the table.
For Agronomia it was quite a revolution because they had finished fifth last year and didn’t make it past the first play-off. In the semis they had to face Tomaz Morais’s GDS Cascais and after some nail biting, Agronomia marched on to the final, winning 17-13.
The CDUL v Agronomia match had all of the components of a classic: full stands, try-saving tackles, outstanding line breaks and a late try that gave the final twist for CDUL’s epic comeback. The final score was 25-21.
The Universitários looked down and out when trailing 16-5 at half-time but their belief never wavered and, in the 80th minute, Jorge Abecassis escaped from a tackle to jump uncontested to the try-line. The whistle was blown and CDUL had earned their 20th national title in the most dramatic style.
RC Lousã propped up the table, with RC Montemor one place above. But there was no official relegation battle as the Premiership will again go through alterations.
In 2017-18 there will be 12 teams, divided into three pools of four. The top two in each group will advance to a pool that will decide the new champions. And the bottom six will play to avoid relegation, in a battle that will have to end with five teams getting demoted to the second tier of Portuguese rugby.
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As for the Portuguese Cup, AIS Agronomia had a second opportunity to win silverware when facing Morais’s team, GDS Cascais. Cascais beat CDUL, GD Direito and Técnico to reach the final, with an interesting combination of youngsters (António Vidinha and Duarte Costa Campos) and Portuguese legends (Diogo Mateus, a former Munster player).
Agronomia learned from their mistakes in the Premiership final and pulled through to take the Portuguese Cup for the tenth time. Cascais had several chances to match the score, but neither Page nor Franco Correa could put the ball through the posts on four occasions.
AIS Agronomia dominated in the scrum and lineout, were cooler under pressure and remained resolute, emerging 16-8 winners. Fernando Almeida and José Rodrigues (all 16 points came from the fly-half) were the standouts on a proud day for the Agrónomo fans.
As for the second-tier Portuguese Championship, SL Benfica and CR Évora won the right to be among the best teams in Portugal, after winning the semi-finals against CR Bairrada (one of the most promising rugby projects in Portugal) and CRAV. The final between both already promoted teams was a joy to watch, with Benfica taking the spoils 19-17.
A star is born
Vasco Ribeiro, a 19-year-old centre, was a force to be reckoned with. In the past two seasons the Agronomia player has won a starting place for his club, played in the Sevens World Series, started five of the last eight Portugal Tests and won the U20 European Championship in Romania.
One of the strongest ball-carriers and tacklers in Portuguese rugby, Ribeiro is on his way to becoming one of the best Portuguese players of the era.
Jorge Abecassis and Nuno Mascarenhas deserve to be praised for their growth. Abecassis, the CDUL full-back, scored all of the Universitários points in the Premiership final (two tries and five penalties), mixing speed and techniques that almost replicates Nuno Sousa Guedes, the sevens International famed for scoring an equalizer against New Zealand in 2015.
Mascarenhas grabbed Morais’s attention and quickly saw his name in the first team. The hooker is a modern type of forward, combining strength and agility.
The South African with a Portuguese heart
José Rodrigues deserves to get the MVP of the season. The fly-half, born in South Africa but with Portuguese blood, was one of the key players who inspired AIS Agronomia to achieve first place in the regular season and win both the Super Cup and Portuguese Cup.
Still waiting for his Portuguese passport so he can help the national team, he scored six tries and kicked 234 points. An incisive offensive player, with a set of skills that can change the course of the game, Rodrigues can tackle as well as a flanker, something natural for any South African player.
Pedro Leal was one of the field bosses of GD Direito in the 2016-17 season. Yes, it wasn’t a good year for the Advogados as they didn’t win a trophy or get to the final of the Premiership, but Leal still had some tricks up his sleeve.
Playing as a scrum-half, the sevens legend managed to shake up his team in some big games and never failed to deliver his very best.
If in 2015-16 GD Direito won every Portuguese and Iberian title, 2016-17 was the complete opposite. However, the former Portuguese champions have one of the best rugby schools in Portugal and they don’t need to be worried about the future. Francisco Bruno, João Vital, Bruno Moreira, Vasco Mendes and others will be new power drivers for the club.
Francisco ‘Kiko’ Magalhães, Portugal’s captain and one of CDUL’s leaders, cemented his reputation as an intense and fearless leader. Only a great skipper could help his team come out from an underachieving year to go through the knockout stage and win the final at the last breath.
A good tackler, dynamic attacker and excellent commanding chief, he has to be recognised as one of the new legends of Portuguese rugby.
Frederico’s dream start
You could argue that Jack Farrer (CDUL) or Tomaz Morais (GDS Cascais) deserve to be listed as the Manager of the Season. But this accolade has to go to Frederico de Sousa because the facts are emphatic: Agronomia bounced back from a disappointing season to win the Super Cup against GD Direito; they secured first place by winning 15 of their 18 games in the regular season; they reached the Premiership final and won the Portuguese Cup.
Agronomia won 21 out of 25 games, showed good execution in the back-line, dominance in the forwards and excellent teamwork. De Sousa mustered the players, recovered their fighting spirit and won two trophies in his first season as Agronomia coach.
Few believed that the Clube Futebol ‘Os Belenenses’ could mount a serious title race or even reach the knockout stage this year. Nonetheless, João Uva (former Portuguese International) and João Mirra’s team had one of the best winning streaks with eight victories and one draw in the last nine games, before it ended in the play-offs against GDS Cascais.
Sprinkled with some of the best players in the Premiership, such as Duarte Moreira, Bernardo Cardoso and Tomás Sequeira, Belenenses can do much more and become once again one of the top teams in Portugal.
As for Académica AC there’s a long way to go but if the Pretos play the right cards they can be a serious team in two or three years’ time. A young team captained by the 23-year-old Francisco Bessa and coached by ex-Portugal head coach João Luís, they play a quick and attractive type of rugby.
Manuel Eusébio Picão is one of the up-and-comers who has established himself as one of the best forwards in Portugal. They need to sort out some problems – players living in Lisbon and not training with the team is one of them – before they can become one of the top contenders for either the national cup or the Premiership.
Portuguese rugby now takes a breather, waiting for the sevens national tournaments and the Beach Rugby Series that will happen in June and July. The 15s season will resume in September with Farrer’s CDUL facing Agronomia in the Super Cup, opening another exciting chapter in Portuguese rugby.