Portugal captain Tomas Appleton will have a few dates circled in his diary for 2023, his 30th birthday on July 29 and his side’s Rugby World Cup opener versus Wales in Nice on September 16 for example.
The first date on his mind in a big year for the sport in his country, though, is this coming Saturday, February 4.
That is the day that Portugal host Belgium in their Rugby Europe Championship opener in Lisbon.
“Rugby in Portugal is growing and this year is a great opportunity for everyone to get to know the sport even better,” centre Appleton said.
“I think young kids need a national team that can inspire them to play and there’s no better place watch this team than in a World Cup.
“Unfortunately, just now rugby is not a big sport in Portugal and the Portuguese media is not giving rugby the right attention, but as players we want to do everything we can to promote things.
“Before we think about the World Cup, we are really focused on these upcoming games [in the Championship]. We’re going to face great teams and we need to bring our ‘A’ game every game.
“To be honest, I think this competition is going to be a great challenge for us because we need to prove our value and show once again that our spot at the World Cup is well deserved.
“I think it [the expanded tournament featuring eight teams] might grow some pressure on teams and that’s a great things. Having a competition with semi-finals and final is going to set up more spectacular games.”
Last year in the Rugby Europe Championship, Portugal won two, drew one and lost two to finish fourth, but given the close nature of their matches it was a case of ‘what might have been’.
The 2022 Rugby Europe Championship was a tough competition for us. As we were looking to qualify for the World Cup at the time, we let the pressure influence us too much,” Appleton reflects.
“We lost crucial games, but looking back I think those defeats changed the way we faced our opponents and especially the way we approach the last minutes of games. We’ll be a much stronger team this year.”
As mentioned, new boys Belgium are the first opponents for Portugal in this year’s showpiece event.
They are in Pool B along with Romania and Poland, so what does the skipper expect from the Belgium match up?
“We know them well and we know they have a similar style of play to us,” he explained.
“They like to play a fast tempo game and we’ll have to have a solid defence and be really disciplined.
“It’s our first game since we qualified for the World Cup and we want to put on a good show.” Portugal v Belgium
Portugal vs Belgium – Saturday 4th February – 8pm CET live on rugbyeurope.tv, Sport TV (POR), FloRugby (North America)
By Gary Heatly
Photos: Luis Cabelo