One of the unique aspects of the World Cup preamble is that amid the cautious posturing of the leading contenders there are others who expect to get hammered. Portugal's part-timers were the last of the 20 sides to qualify, they are the second lowest-ranked and their own coaches predict they will lose to the All Blacks "by a cricket score". Not so much the romance of the cup as a touch of the ridiculous.
The first-time qualifiers have a doughty nickname – Los Lobos, "The Wolves" – but not a lot else. They won a last-ditch repêchage against Uruguay by a single point, after Uruguay had their best player sent off early in the second leg. Three of Portugal's players are professionals with French clubs; the rest are students or have full-time jobs.
If New Zealand's star fly-half Dan Carter takes part when the teams meet in Lyon on Saturday week, his opposite number will be one Pedro Cabral, a 24-year-old economics student at the University of Lisbon. "Pedro is a remarkable lookalike for Dan Carter: the way he looks, the way he runs and passes and carries himself." So says Adam Leach, Portugal's forwards coach and once an Australian flanker who had three seasons with Harlequins. He is also, in case you doubted it, a realist.
"It's going to be a cricket score against the All Blacks, I know that," says Leach. "Some of our guys are overawed that they will be on the same field. Others are saying, 'Sod this, let's get into them'. For me it's all about the top two inches. At the very least the guys have got to have the self-belief to go forward in the game: go forward in the tackle and at the scrum engagement, and attack the ball a bit. Ifthey sit back and wait, we'll get completely carved up."
The International Rugby Board appointed Leach – who has also coached Tonga – in July and they pay his wages. The mandarins know humiliation is a byproduct when World Cup minnows are tossed in with professional piranhas. In 2003,Australia beat Namibia 142-0. Eight years earlier, New Zealand beat Japan 145-17 and Simon Culhane, the All Black fly-half, scored 45 points. "I don't think it does anyone a lot of good if they are absolutely belted," Culhane said recently, predicting just that fate for Portugal. "You could see the fear in the Japanese eyes."
The reference point for those who fear something worse than farcical scorelines is Max Brito, the Ivory Coast wing paralysed for life by a tackle against Tonga in 1995. "I don't think any of our players have a worry about physical damage," says Leach, but he thinks the tournament's format is wrong. "The best team in the world playing against an amateur team is not a great thing. I just don't know what we get out of that. It would be fairer if they go for a two-tier World Cup."
When Leach was at Quins with Will Carling, Keith Wood and Jason Leonard, the socialising was done in Richmond's rugby pub, the Sun Inn. Now he is plotting a survival course on the beaches of the Algarve and in the bars of Lisbon. The head coach, Tomaz Morais, hopes against the odds that morale stays high enough through the patently one-sided pool contests against Scotland, New Zealand and Italy to have a good crack at Romania in the last match. Portugal's football-mad sports pages have shown an interest, and recent warm-up games with London Welsh and Coventry (one defeat, one win) were shown live on television.
"The players have a good flair for the game in a Latino way," says Leach. "The props are strong, there is a lock, Gonzalo Uva, who is a special young player, and a winger called Kiki who is Premiership quality. Overall, we're comparable with a second division side in England."
In the past fortnight, Los Lobos have lost to Canada (42-12) and Japan (15-13). Today they will play a structured practice game with a local club in St Etienne. "The opposition will be told not to beat us up," says Leach. It may not be cricket to say so, but perhaps the All Blacks should take the same approach.
World Cup records
New Zealand 145 Japan 17, 1995
Australia 142 Namibia 0, 2003
England 111 Uruguay 13, 2003
New Zealand 101 Italy 3, 1999
England 101 Tonga 10, 1999
Most tries by one team
22, Australia v Namibia, 2003
21, New Zealand v Japan, 1995
17, England v Uruguay, 2003
Most tries by one player
6, Marc Ellis, New Zealand v Japan, 1995
5, Chris Latham, Australia v Namibia, 2003
5, Josh Lewsey, England v Uruguay, 2003
Most points by one player
45, Simon Culhane, New Zealand v Japan, 1995
44, Gavin Hastings, Scotland v Ivory Coast, 1995
42, Matt Rogers, Australia v Namibia, 2003
World Cup fixtures
Pool A: England, South Africa, Samoa, USA, Tonga.
Pool B: Australia, Wales, Fiji, Canada, Japan.
Pool C: New Zealand, Scotland, Italy, Romania, Portugal.
Pool D: France, Ireland, Argentina, Georgia, Namibia.
7 Sept: France v Argentina, Stade de France (8pm BST).
8 Sept: England v USA, Lens (5pm); Australia v Japan, Lyon (2.45pm); New Zealand v Italy, Marseilles (12.45pm).
9 Sept: Ireland v Namibia, Bordeaux (7pm); Wales v Canada, Nantes (1pm); South Africa v Samoa, Parc des Princes, Paris (3pm); Scotland v Portugal, St Etienne (5pm).
11 Sept: Argentina v Georgia, Lyon (7pm).
12 Sept: Italy v Romania, Marseilles (7pm); USA v Tonga, Montpellier (1pm); Japan v Fiji, Toulouse (5pm).
14 Sept: England v South Africa, Stade de France (8pm).
15 Sept: Ireland v Georgia, Bordeaux (8pm); Wales v Australia, Cardiff (2pm); New Zealand v Portugal, Lyon (12pm).
16 Sept: Fiji v Canada, Cardiff (1pm); Samoa v Tonga, Montpellier (3pm); France v Namibia, Toulouse (8pm).
18 Sept: Scotland v Romania, Edinburgh (8pm).
19 Sept: Italy v Portugal, Parc des Princes (7pm).
20 Sept: Wales v Japan, Cardiff (8pm).
21 Sept: France v Ireland, Stade de France (8pm).
22 Sept: South Africa v Tonga, Lens (1pm); Argentina v Namibia, Marseilles (8pm); England v Samoa, Nantes (3pm).
23 Sept: Scotland v New Zealand, Edinburgh (4pm); Australia v Fiji, Montpellier (1.30pm).
25 Sept: Canada v Japan, Bordeaux (5pm); Romania v Portugal, Toulouse (7pm).
26 Sept: Georgia v Namibia, Lens, (5pm); Samoa v USA, St Etienne (7pm).
28 Sept: England v Tonga, Parc des Princes (8pm).
29 Sept: Australia v Canada, Bordeaux (2pm); Wales v Fiji, Nantes (4pm); Scotland v Italy, St Etienne (8pm); New Zealand v Romania, Toulouse (12pm).
30 Sept: France v Georgia, Marseilles (2pm); South Africa v USA, Montpellier (7pm); Ireland v Argentina, Parc des Princes (4pm).
6 Oct: Quarter-final 1: Winner Pool B v Runner-up Pool A, Marseilles (2pm); Quarter-final 2: Winner Pool C v Runner-up Pool D, Cardiff (8pm).
7 Oct: Quarter-final 3: Winner Pool A v Runner-up Pool B, Marseilles (2pm); Quarter-final 4: Winner Pool D v Runner-up Pool C, Stade de France (8pm).
13 Oct: Semi-final 1: Winner Q-F1 v Winner Q-F2, Stade de France (8pm).
14 Oct: Semi-final 2: Winner Q-F3 v Winner Q-F4, Stade de France (8pm).
19 Oct: Third place play-off, Parc des Princes (8pm).
20 Oct: Final, Stade de France (8pm).Reuse content