Portugal making the World Cup, USA’s future and France’s 10 : PlanetRugby

This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with Portugal’s triumph, USA’s future, sensible financial controls and the French fly-half debate…

Wolves indebted to their pack

It was billed as a match between the speed and skill of Portugal against the muscle and structure of the USA. The former coached by Bayonne Express winger Patrice Lagisquet, the latter with a significantly forwards-heavy brains trust featuring Mario Ledesma, John Plumtree and Gary Gold in the coaching box.

It started that way too, a searing second-minute break from Nuno Sousa Guedes backed up not long later by Portugal’s try. It continued that way, as the USA managed to slow the game down and ground their way to a second-half try of their own from about 4mm. And it finished that way, with space and open fluidity at a premium all game.

The unexpected aspect was how well Portugal’s pack stood up to their counterparts. The scrum creaked a couple of times, the line-out fell foul of Cam Dolan’s gadget arms a few times too, but the Lobos pack generally gave as good as it got.

“The best job we have done with this team is to build up a strong scrum, have the capacity to play the mauls, to defend them well,” said Lagisquet, now 60 and who returned to his day job as an insurance broker two days later.

“We have a pack that doesn’t seem so powerful, but today we were 890kgs, which is the weight of a pack at that [top] level, apart from France, or South Africa, who can be more than 920kgs, but we don’t compete with these teams. We have a powerful pack, and today we couldn’t hope to win if we couldn’t compete in this area.”

Portugal’s return to the WorldCup has been a test of time and patience since 2007. Their domestic league has developed slowly, but has not been helped by a conflict of player resources with the sevens team. Many of the squad’s top players now play in France, however, meaning that although the national team program drawn from the local talent pool itself is not fully professional, the attitude at key times has been, which has made it easier for the professional players based abroad to buy in and return for the crucial games.

They also had the ‘lucky’ break afforded to them by the scandal involving Spain’s South African prop, which saw Portugal promoted to the play-off after Spain were booted out. But notably, all of the names on the Portugal teamsheet had a distinctly Portuguese ring to them: it is laudable that this team has not seen fit to parachute in a couple of residency projects to achieve its goals; as captain Tomas Appleton noted while still capable of speech, it will be all the most inspiring for that.

“I think back to a tour we did in Brazil and Chile, I was able to organize my work week at the same pace as that of a professional team,” said Lagisquet.

“I wanted to test my players, and they digested it, assimilated this way of working. It was not easy for the amateurs, but I explained to them that it was only by working like this that we could achieve it and that it was only in this way that we could bring players from the French championship so that they feel involved in a sustainable project. I told the Portuguese players that from now on, we would train like this at every gathering, and they accepted it.

“We also played decisive matches this summer against Italy, Argentina, and Georgia. They prepared us well for the decisive meeting in Dubai, especially in the forward game and in the scrum. But I think this team can still do better.”

They will have to, but as it stands now, the group Portugal have qualified for is a fascinating one. Both Wales and Australia look well off the pace, Fiji are as enigmatic as ever, and there’s Georgia, who just picked Wales off but have also been run close by Portugal – a recent competitive clash between them finished 25-25. There’s a sporting chance that Portugal’s biggest rugby moment is soon to be played.

USA has time on its side

The two props who gave away the killer penalties that have extinguished the Eagles’ dreams of 2023 are in their early 20s, meaning that by the time the USA‘s own World Cup comes around, they’ll be in their prime. The same can be said about much of the squad, in fact, while in AJ McGinty and David Ainu’u, there is Premiership and Top 14 experience to be fallen back upon later.

Critical to the Eagles’ future is improvement in the structures at home. Opinions coined from US Rugby stakeholders in the wake of the exit on Friday have been unequivocal: US Rugby needs a shake-up. “Mismanagement, nepotism, an over-conservative game-plan and no lessons learned from bankruptcy in 2020. It’s ridiculous with the talent pool we have that we are not better,” answered one.

Unifying the professional league and the national governing body would be one step (where have we heard that before) but there does seem to be positivity surrounding the enforced exit of the two weird Giltinis and Gilgronis teams because of financial irregularities, and the admission of a team from Chicago instead. There is a sense of the game re-bearing after covid wrecked 2020 just as Major League Rugby was picking up momentum.

It remains to be seen whether there will continue to be continuity in the coaching staff, but with a young squad with plenty of potential and a committed coaching team, US Rugby might do better to continue getting its house foundations fully in order before simply changing the coach.

Want to know how to run a league properly?

Loose Pass has touched upon this one before: namely that France has a mechanism of budget auditing before and during the seasons to ensure that clubs do not do a Wasps/Worcester in their quest for eternal glory.

By way of example: Carcassone and Grenoble were both sanctioned with suspended points withdrawals and significant fines the past week, the former for “inconsistency and/or implausibility of the initial and/or updated budget” and “non-compliance with the regulatory provisions and decisions of the CCCP (the auditing body).” Grenoble were sanctioned for “non-compliance with the regulatory provisions and decisions of the CCCP.”

The clubs’ points losses were both suspended, as were the bulks of the fines, provided the two do not transgress in either of the next two seasons and there were few other details in the somewhat terse statement, but how refreshing just to know that clubs are being properly regulated?

The French fly-half debate

A successful November, a seemingly limitless pool of talent, a home World Cup there for the taking, flankers who can play on the wing… is there nothing that is not running smoothly in France at the moment?

We’ll see. French fans can become very tribal, and Matthieu Jalibert’s sparkling cameo against Japan on Sunday has re-ignited a debate all over L’Ovalie at the moment: who should be the first-choice for Les Bleus, Jalibert or Romain Ntamack?

It’s a peaceful debate for now, but Ntamack has struggled for form as he returns from injury, while Jalibert’s club form may be given a boost after the sacking this week of controversial Bordeaux coach Christophe Urios. An interesting Six Nations selection ask awaits.

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