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Game On! The story behind the rise of Portuguese women's rugby

By Martyn Thomas
Action from the Rugby Europe Women's Championship 2024 match between Portugal and the Netherlands. Credit: Rugby Europe

“It makes no sense to encourage players to come over for a training session. To make their sacrifices, like everyone does, just to be able to play a match,” Portugal women’s head coach João Moura says towards the end of our phone conversation.

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“We need to aim high so we can be the best that we can be.”

No one could accuse Moura of lacking ambition since he returned to the Federação Portuguesa de Rugby (Portugal Rugby) in 2019 and set about revolutionising the women’s game in the Iberian nation.

Moura had been charged with developing a 15s national championship and restoring Portugal to the women’s Test stage, on which the country had appeared only once previously, losing 50-0 to Germany in May 1995.

Working with the support of Portugal Rugby president Carlos Amado da Silva, and later Francisco Goes, who joined as the union’s vice-president of women’s rugby in 2021, the ultimate goal was to qualify for the Rugby Europe Women’s Championship.

Remarkably, Portugal and Moura won promotion to the Championship in only his seventh match in charge. Last month, less than five years after he returned to Portugal Rugby, Las Lobas made their debut in Europe’s second tier.

WATCH THE WOMEN’S CHAMPIONSHIP LIVE ON RUGBYPASS TV HERE

The Netherlands proved party poopers in Lisbon, winning 31-7, but with a seven-team domestic championship supporting the national team and a growing pool of overseas-based players to pick from, the rate of Portugal’s progress has been impressive.

Indeed, were it not for the COVID-19 pandemic, then Las Lobas might well be an established Championship team by now.

“I always believed that we had the potential to have a 15s programme,” Moura says. “That was my main goal, to set up a 15s programme and hopefully be as established as it could be, being able to compete and being able to progress.

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“Luckily, it’s been a good rise for us.”

Whatever Moura might have you believe, luck has not been the primary factor in Portugal’s rise to the Championship, ahead of Saturday’s visit of Sweden to Lisbon.

In the quarter of a century between Portugal’s first foray into women’s Test rugby and their second international in December 2021, there had been many false dawns.

Participation numbers had always been an issue when it came to club 15s in the country, while an adapted 13-player competition folded in the early 2010s.

By the time Moura settled down at his desk at Portugal Rugby’s headquarters in Lisbon, the only forms of rugby open to female players were sevens and 10s.

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His first task, therefore, was to provide opportunities for women to play the longer form of the game. In order to achieve this, Moura looked overseas and borrowed the ‘Game On!’ initiative used in the community game in Wales.

Described by the Welsh Rugby Union as a “less formalised format of the 15-a-side game”, ‘Game On!’ effectively means that two teams can play an equal-sided match as long as one has at least 10 players.

Translated to Portugal, this meant that Moura could ensure that matches would go ahead in the first couple of seasons as clubs built up their player base.

“The strategy behind it was to come back to that 13-a-side [format],” Moura explains. “The ‘Game On!’ model helped us to work with the clubs and explain a plan to grow into a full 15s competition.

“So, basically, the first year we did that, we applied ‘Game On!’ with 13-a-side, and basically we covered the possibility of having a couple of games with two 15s teams on the pitch because a couple of clubs had numbers for it.”

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In the first year of the revived league, the Campeonato Nacional de Rugby Feminino, the regulations stated that a minimum of 12 players per side were needed for a match to go ahead.

That minimum number has increased incrementally over the years since and now all seven clubs that compete in the national championship are able to field 15-player teams.

“When I was invited to take on this position and had the chance to reorganise the women’s game in Portugal, it was clear to me that we had to resume the 15s domestic competition and start a proper 15s programme to compete on the international stage,” Moura told World Rugby last year.

“The principle behind it was simple – having a 15s competition means that the clubs will have to work to find more players and, therefore, more numbers at club level means more numbers globally.”

As he said this week, “everything’s connected” and as the player pool increased so Moura prepared Portugal to dip their toes back into the waters of Test rugby.

That reintroduction was delayed by the pandemic, but when it came it was spectacular. Tries from Antonia Martins and Adelina Costa gave Las Lobas a 10-8 victory over Belgium at the beginning of December 2021 and that was followed by a 57-0 defeat of Germany and a record 71-5 win against the Belgians in Brussels – the first time the team had ever played an away game.

Portugal’s 2022 ended with a narrow 7-5 loss against Sweden, but the New Year brought with it victories against Finland, Czechia and Germany as the team surged to the Rugby Europe Women’s Trophy title at the first attempt.

A drawn two-match tour of Brazil followed last November, before their time in the Championship began with a creditable defeat to the Netherlands three weeks ago.

“It was a good kick-off for us. We were able to score a try, we were able to defend a couple of phases and it was good. Even though it was a loss, it gives us a margin to progress,” Moura says.

“The physicality of the Netherlands team was something that we were expecting. That is probably the biggest difference.

“As everyone knows, Portuguese rugby is not known for having strong players. So, with the women it’s not different even though we’ve got an interesting team. Still, we need to improve our physicality.

“But to be honest, the amount of pressure or the speed of the pressure that we felt with the Netherlands’ defence, they were able to put us under pressure.

“We are still not used to playing as quick as we need to play and use the ball at championship level. So, hopefully that was a good learning point for us.”

Given the close nature of their previous defeat to Sweden 16 months ago, Moura is confident that his team can get a first Championship victory in Lisbon this Saturday. “We are pretty eager to play against them,” he admits.

One unintended consequence of Portugal’s sharp rise up European rugby’s ecosystem has been the number of overseas-born players who have put their hands up for selection, echoing the experience of the country’s men’s national team.

With several domestic players earning moves to Spain and France since that first match against Belgium, it means Moura can call on up to 15 women based overseas.

It all adds to the positive picture facing Moura, Goes and Portuguese rugby at present. And having achieved the initial goals of reviving domestic 15s and earning promotion to the Women’s Championship, and with a first-ever Test against neighbours Spain on the horizon, the head coach has not stopped dreaming.

“Since day one that has been my conviction, what we’ve been passing on to the players is that this is the level we want to be at. This is the level we have the ability to be at,” Moura adds.

“We talked a couple of times about keeping progressing and keeping getting better to hopefully, one day, be able to join the WXV competition and who knows, compete for a spot in the World Cup.

“We’re talking years from now but still, I believe that the young girls that are coming through, they have to work with their eyes set on ambitious goals.”

They are aspirations shared by the union. “Those are the goals!” Goes texts. “We would like to compete in WXV and be involved in the qualification process for the 2029 World Cup.”

Given what has already been achieved since 2019, you wouldn’t bet against Moura and his trailblazing players.

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B.J. Spratt 3 hours ago
All Blacks vs England takeaways: Richie Who? Time for Cortez

You Poms and Paddies are really nice guys. New Zealand V Ireland - 37 Tests - N.Z. 31 Wins - Ireland 5 Wins - 1 draw. New Zealand V England - 45 Tests - N.Z. 35 Wins -England 8 Wins - 2 draws. Combined - You have beaten the All Blacks 13 Times in 82 attempts over 119 years. The Stats over 100 years + would say, especially England with 6 Times the player pool than New Zealand, you have “a limitation of context” regarding developing your coaches to teach your players how to WIN. So how can England with a 6 times the player numbers have a 17% winning strike rate against New Zealand? and be 8 -0 in Test Series over 100 years. The answer is simple. Your perception of the game. How do you fix it? You need to play in New Zealand for a couple of seasons in your teens, 18 -20 or send coaches over here. Martin Johnstone played 2 seasons here under the mentorship of Colin Meads. When he came here he had rugby shorts with pockets and a handkerchief in one pocket. He played for NZ Under 21 against Wallaby John Eales. He became the toughest player in the game and the best ever English Captain and Captained the Lions twice. Legend! Maybe if he hadn’t come to New Zealand, he may still had those rugby shorts with pockets. Recently Rogan O’Gara spent time at the Crusaders. What a great coach. “Our “mindset is different” and that’s how we have beaten you for 100 years + How the hell he isn’t Coaching Ireland, France, England, Wales, or Scotland I will never know? England has 131,000 Senior rugby Players. Ireland has 21,000 Senior Players. New Zealand has 27,000 Senior Players.

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