Following the 28-8 victory for Wales over Portugal in Pool C of the Rugby World Cup, here’s our five takeaways from the game at Stade de Nice.
The top line
It might have been Wales that won the match, scraping a bonus-point by the skin of their teeth, but there’s no doubt that Portugal won the hearts and minds of all of the watching rugby folk with a quite brilliant display from a team of predominantly part-time pros.
Tries from Louis Rees-Zammit, Dewi Lake, Jac Morgan and in the last second, Taulupe Faletau saw the scoreboard flatter the men in black, and perhaps had Portugal played for a little more territory and scrummaged a little better, the result may have been very different.
For those calling for an expansion to the Six Nations, the Portuguese hat is very much in the ring. They’ve had a superb year, losing 30-17 to the might of Australia and drawing with USA to get through to this stage of the Rugby World Cup, and on their display on Saturday they showed they have an attack, lineout and defence to compete with anyone.
A lot of the issues Wales faced were of their own making. Despite selecting a four-man lineout option in the pack, Portugal took them apart in that battle, stealing four throws, with another two overthrown due to the pressure the Europeans exerted. Steevy Cerqueira has a field day disrupting in the middle, and with the support of the outstanding Nicolas Martins (more of him shortly), they emerged comfortably victorious in this area.
The Welsh handling in carry and contact was equally poor, with seven unforced errors crippling their continuity. On several occasions, players went out of the radar of support runners and clearers, becoming isolated and losing contact in tackle or getting stripped by the excellent Portuguese back-row.
For all the ailments of the lineout, the Welsh scrummage was the key to their win, with Dewi Lake, an inspiring leader in the set-piece and outside. Much has been made in the Principality of the injury to Ken Owens and the question of how you replace a man of that stature, but in Lake, they appear to have found a chip off the same Welsh block.
Nothing we like better here at Planet Rugby than a duel between two quality opensides, and this game provided that and then some. Wales openside Morgan was rushed into the starting line-up when Tommy Reffell pulled up during the training run, and he was back to his brilliant barrelling best, driving through contact and offloading for Louis Rees-Zammit to scoot along the right wing for Wales’ opener.
Morgan’s ability to stay on his feet during contact and get the ball away is quite impressive for a man of small stature by today’s standards, and he was a perpetual nuisance to Portugal both in carry and in leading the Welsh defensive effort.
His opposite number, Nicholas Martins, is a different type of flanker, playing in Portugal’s system of left and right over open and blindside. He put in one hell of a shift and lost nothing in comparison to his Welsh opponent. A powerful carrier, it was only a last-gasp tackle from the veteran Taulupe Faletau that prevented the Portuguese flank from crashing over after a brilliant chip from Jeronimo Portela had opened the Welsh defence up.
A second-half try for each man – Martins courtesy of a brilliant lineout peel – summed up how close the head-to-head was between these two fine flanks, and it’s a mark of his quality that the battle with Morgan could only be claimed as an honourable draw after a fantastic display from both.
Portugal’s free running backs were a revelation. Playing in a similar way to France with a split midfield and with Tomas Appleton standing as one fly-half and Jeronimo Portela as the other, they caused Wales no end of issues with their handling and support work.
Appleton played a captain’s knock, carrying 14 times for 88 metres in a spectacular display of centre skills, and had his team had just one more power runner or one player with the gas to get around the excellent Welsh defence, we may have seen some more tries for Portugal, and they’d have been much deserved.
On the flip side, the Welsh backline looked static, unimaginative and really struggled for any form of shape. Remarkably, given the talents of their wings, Rees-Zammit and Josh Adams, rarely did we see switch moves with one of those players coming in from the flanks.
Other than a few moments from both of their scrum-halves bursting down the middle, far too often was the Welsh movement from side to side rather than down the pitch. Warren Gatland said post-match that there’s a lot to work on, and he’s right.
Wales’ bonus-point puts that bit more pressure on both Fiji and Australia, and next weekend’s clash of the two pool favourites when they meet the Wallabies will be greatly anticipated. With Georgia thereafter, a side that has given Warren Gatland’s men a lot of problems in the past, qualification is likely but not assured.
Against the Wallabies, Wales’ lineout is the biggest issue that needs fixing, as the Aussies are world-class in that area. Eddie Jones will have noted both the poorness of the Welsh attacking skills but also the strength of their defence, and the tie next week is one to relish.
Portugal face Georgia next weekend and, as two T2 sides with Six Nations aspirations ahead, nothing could be a better barometer of their progress. It is their Rugby World Cup final and, based upon what we saw in this match, if their scrum can hold up, then they have the firepower to sneak a surprise win.
READ MORE: Wales struggle to second Rugby World Cup victory against brilliant Portugal
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