Victory over Spain in Coimbra clinched back-to-back European U20 titles for Portugal. Francisco Isaac reports on a championship of thrills, spills and surprises
Portugal make history as they retain the U20 European Championship title
For the first time ever, Portugal clinched back-to-back titles in Rugby Europe’s U20 European Championship, matching the feat of Georgia. In an echo of last year’s triumph, they defeated Spain in the final in front of a full house in Sérgio Conceição Stadium in Taveiro (Coimbra).
But how did Portugal and Spain end up in the final? What of Romania or Russia, two sides who in the past have had a major say in the competition?
Well, there were some surprises. Who would have thought that the Netherlands would claim a spot in the semi-finals? The Dutch aren’t accustomed to battling it out so deep into tournaments, but they reached the last four for the first time by ousting Romania in an outstanding nail-biter that finished 40-38.
Romania lacked the speed and capability to suppress the Netherlands’ back-line attack and conceded three tries in each half. It wasn’t enough to dominate the scrum or lineout, as the Romanians gave away too much possession through handling errors. In contrast, the Netherlands were clinical behind a quick and impressive pack.
Despite a last-minute try by Romania, their chances of levelling the score were shattered as the conversion went wide. So history was made and the Netherlands advanced to a semi-final against the home team, Portugal. The Dutch dream versus the 2017 champions.
Due to a vacancy left by Germany, a regional Portuguese side completed the eight-team line-up and was easily defeated by the Portugal national side in the quarter-finals. The semi-final was a close affair for long stretches but Portugal proved too strong for the Dutch in the scrum and emerged 22-7 winners.
The Netherlands then lost the bronze-medal match 38-7 to Russia, but their growth between 2017 and 2018 has been impossible to miss. In the future they will need to figure out how to counter their opponents’ scrum and to be more disciplined at the breakdown.
One player to watch in the coming years is Kevin Krieger. The No 8 and captain played a huge role in the Netherlands’ success in this competition.
Another name to remember is Marc Mistoun, a powerful inside-centre who always threatened to break the line and score tries. He can also kick at goal, with his accuracy off the tee instrumental in the victory over Romania.
Romania with plenty to ponder
Some may be surprised to hear that Romania – a fixture in the senior World Cup – are failing to achieve higher placings at U18 or U20 level in the last couple of years. Third place is the best they’ve managed recently at youth level.
Romania U20 have big athletes, with a brutal and powerful drive giving them dominance in the pack. Valentin Matache and Peter Chiriac were two of the best forwards in the competition, with that aggressive physicality that Romanians are known for.
But their game execution became stale because of a lack of speed in the build-up plays and insufficient strength at the breakdown.
After losing to the Netherlands, Romania went on to secure fifth place by beating Portugal Regional Centro-Norte and Ukraine by handsome margins. Yet you could see real issues in the open play, as poor passes and knock-ons ended some interesting moves.
There are ideas there but rugby is quicker now than ever before, forcing players to be quicker and agile, and the Romanians lost that battle against the Dutch.
Fifth place behind Portugal, Spain, Russia and the Netherlands is a sign that something is wrong and it must be addressed if Romania are to close the gap on Portugal and Spain.
More pain for Spain
This is not proving a great year for the Spanish union after failing to get to Japan 2019 and incurring heavy suspensions for five players that will take some quality from their set-up.
Their U20 side was again close to achieving the dream of qualifying for the World Rugby U20 Trophy with superb performances in the quarter- and semi-finals. In the first match, Spain brushed aside Ukraine 81-0, with openside Simon Zubizarreta delivering a fine exhibition.
The Spanish players looked fresh and composed, slick moves easing their passage to the final. Russia, stronger at the scrum, never really menaced Los Leones, coughing up possession.
Although not the biggest team around, Spain showed that a combination of speed, agility and intensity can unlock most opponents. Wing Lucas Martin, a real speedster with good handling skills, and Juan Carrasco were two who caught the eye in the first two games.
Unfortunately, injury cost Spain the services of their fly-half Carrasco for the final against Portugal. It dealt a serious blow to Spain as he was the one who set up most of the plays or took pressure off his team with a smart kicking game.
That wasn’t the only problem for Spain as their rivals would put an end to their dream.
Portugal turn on the style
Portugal conceded only one try in three games, an all-time best in the competition and evidence of the rich promise they have at youth level.
Former Portugal captain Luís Pissarra is the mastermind behind the coaching team and Portugal have won nine of their last ten games, the only defeat coming against Japan in the U20 World Rugby Trophy last September.
What are the secrets behind Portugal’s victory in 2018? Perfection in every area of the game. Against Spain, they won five of their opponents’ scrums, pushing back Spain to win penalties that drove the home team forward.
Portugal seized every opportunity to turn over the ball, showing real prowess in the breakdown, something that Spain never managed to do.
Nuno Mascarenhas, already a senior international, José Roque, João F Vital and Manuel Pinto are some of the Portuguese forwards that provided that consistency. In the final, flanker Pinto stole Spanish ball on six occasions, attacking the breakdown with speed and wit.
But more than anything, what paved the way to the title was the tackling and defensive strategy. Portugal missed only ten of their 100 tackles, closing every gap and space that Spanish players tried to escape through.
Rugby fans all over the world remember that Os Lobos in 2007 were recognised for their fearsome and brave tackling, showing a relentlessness that took most by surprise.
At U20 level, missing a tackle doesn’t seem to be an option as they showed during the whole competition. Additionally, Portugal mounted strong attacking lines with Manuel Cardoso Pinto – remember that full-back who scored one of the best tries in the 2017 European Championship? – and Rodrigo Marta wreaking havoc in the Dutch and Spanish lines.
Duarte Costa Campos, Martim Cardoso and Duarte Azevedo were Portugal’s try-scorers in the final, with João Lima and Simão Van Zeller adding extras with the boot. Lander Mujika kicked Spain’s solitary penalty in what proved a 25-3 reverse.
The European Championship will return in 2019, with doubt remaining over Germany after they failed to appear in Portugal due to budget issues. Luxembourg, Belgium and Czech Republic declined an invitation to replace Germany this year due to a lack of preparation time, leading to a Portuguese regional side stepping in.
Portugal will now prepare for the World Rugby Trophy taking place in September in Romania. Fiji, Samoa (relegated from last year’s U20 World Cup), Uruguay, Namibia and Hong Kong are some of the teams that have already booked their place in the competition.
Pissarra, the former Lobos international scrum-half and coach of Portugul U20, spoke with us after this championship…
RW: Luís, were Portugal the best team? What was the secret to beating Spain?
LP: For me, Portugal were the strongest team through the tournament. In the final, Spain had ten minutes of dominance but we quickly recovered and started to work very well in the breakdown. We controlled the game from that moment until the final whistle.
Our wins against Spain and Netherlands go way beyond strategy or good performances, it’s about the group and the ‘family’ we have built. The team believed it was possible to win the tournament and they followed the game plan to perfection.
No doubt that the way we tackle, the pressure we apply and our aggressive work in the breakdown took our adversaries by storm. The scrum was also important to win space and show dominance.
RW: Do you feel the overall quality of the tournament compared well to 2017?
LP: I think the absence of Belgium and Germany was felt throughout the competition. Russia and Romania were a bit under the radar, but Netherlands showed they are developing quite nicely. Spain are doing an excellent job and deserved the spot in the final.
RW: How will your team prepare for the U20 World Rugby Trophy?
LP: Now starts the hardest part. We have to be strong mentally and physically as we are going to be away from home for two weeks in September. We are going to face Fiji, Uruguay and USA or Canada in our pool, so it will be hard and challenging.
FINAL DAY SCORES
Championship final: Portugal 25-3 Spain
Bronze final: Russia 38-7 Netherlands
Fifth-place final: Romania 76-13 Ukraine
Seventh-place final: Poland 29-19 Portugal Regional Centro-Norte
RUGBY WORLD INDIVIDUAL PRIZES
Player of the Tournament: Nuno Mascarenhas and João Lima (both Portugal)
Best tackler: Daniel Barranco (Spain)
Best forward: Kevin Krieger (Netherlands) and Manuel Pinto (Portugal)
Best back: Rodrigo Marta (Portugal)
Best try: Manuel Cardoso Pinto, for Portugal v Netherlands
Best referee: Neil Chivers (England)