We explain how popular the sport is in Portugal
After qualifying for a Rugby World Cup for a second time, Portugal is alive and well again. But is the ball getting passed through more hands in the country? The 2022 success was only possible due to another milestone – the 2007 World Cup qualification, the first time Portugal secured a spot at the famous tournament.
The qualification then saw Portuguese rugby experience an overflow of fans in the stands – be it in the seniors, juniors, or at any other level. The first leg of the 2007 Rugby World Cup qualifying against Uruguay was attended by more than three thousand fans, who were loud in the stands of the Universitário de Lisboa.
This was dubbed as the Lobos belle époque, as the XV was widely celebrated in Europe.
They had been champions of the European Nations Cup back in 2004, and they built up a squad that could even defeat Georgia, Romania, or Russia. The sevens were also gearing up, and the numbers of youth players were rising. After the 2007 Rugby World Cup, you could go to any club in the afternoon and see clusters of kids playing around with the oval ball, mounting almost eight thousand players in Portugal.
It was common to see videos of the Portuguese players singing the national anthem in TV ads, building hype that helped the sport become a small force in Portugal. There were a few terms that were coined, like Placagem à Lobos (A Wolves Tackle) or A Alcateia (the Wolfpack, which means the Portuguese rugby family), that are still commonly known throughout Portuguese sports.
But the second decade of the 21st century brought dismay, apathy, and a crash in many forms. The number of players dipped and the media attention dwindled after failing to get back onto the Rugby World Cup train.
As we wrote in our June edition of Rugby World, some of the 2023 internationals enlisted in the sport after seeing Portugal in the 2007 Rugby World Cup, and that is proof of how big the tournament still is for rugby.
The game is still dominated by an elite, but it is starting to open up and engage with people who never were involved with rugby. The number of new athletes is once again on the rise, be it in the boys’ or girls’ youth classes.
When did rugby start in Portugal?
The oval ball didn’t have a steady start in Portugal, as it had several try-outs before the union was finally established. Little is known of how the sport started to be played, but the first ever match played on Portuguese soil dates back to 1903 when some British officials played against the Lisbon Football Club, in a full-on British match.
In 1926, the Associação de Rugby de Lisboa came to light with the help of British and French expats and some locals. But the actual union, Federação Portuguesa de Rugby, would only be created thirty-one years later, specifically on 23 September 1957. Portugal will play Georgia on 23 September 2023 to celebrate its union’s 66th birthday in Toulouse.
Between 1926 and 2023, there were some big moments in Portuguese rugby that helped build a story of a relentless community, like the 1973 famous win against Italy, the 1987 hard-fought loss versus France “A”, or their first international match ever which ended up with a defeat of 5-6 against their Iberian rivals, Spain.
September will be another chapter in Portugal’s rugby history, and one that can be key for a new era of growth and progress.
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