Portugal down USA to book final Rugby World Cup place in France

To Portugal, the deserved and considerable glory of a second-ever place at the Rugby World Cup. Os Lobos last reached France in 2007. In 2023 they will join Australia, Wales, Fiji and Georgia in Pool C.

To the USA, the not-quite unknown ignominy of missing the finals, thanks to this dramatic draw in Dubai. The host country in 2031 have played at every finals bar 1995 but the Eagles will not be at the big show this time.

Back in July, after the US lost to Chile, sending them to this Final Qualification Tournament, the World Rugby chief executive considered how American fortunes on the field might affect preparations off it for an American World Cup.

“I don’t think the game needs the US in France next year,” Alan Gilpin said. “I think the US plan will benefit significantly from the US being in France.”

That benefit will not now accrue. With time almost up, the Eagles were three points up and had an attacking five-metre scrum. They conceded a penalty, the Portuguese cleared. They knew a draw would do, thanks to bigger wins over Hong Kong and Kenya. They kept their heads even when a drop goal hit a post. Samuel Marques, their scrum-half, kicked the penalty that mattered. The draw, 16-16, was enough.

Portugal’s dynamic centre and captain, Tomás Appleton, said: “This is amazing. We’ve been missing the World Cup. We need a new generation to inspire young kids to go and play rugby and I think the sacrifice is incredible.”

AJ MacGinty, the US captain and fly-half, was correspondingly crestfallen.

“We gave our best shot and credit to Portugal for battling back there,” he said. “I’m really proud of the squad, the group, all the coaches who put so much into putting us into the best position for this, and it was almost there.”

The first half was a story of American possession and mistakes against Portuguese defence and more ruthless attack. It ended 10-9 to Os Lobos and one-all for yellow cards. The first was shown to Nate Augspurger, the Eagles left wing, after just five minutes. His tackle on Nuno Sousa Guedes, the impressive Portuguese full-back, took the man past the horizontal and was also late. The Eagles were up 3-0 from a MacGinty penalty but Portugal made the extra man count simply by going at pace to where Augspurger wasn’t. Raffaele Storti stepped over after good work from Guedes.

Marques converted. The Eagles pack got back to squeezing out penalties. Lineouts close in brought no change from the defenders but did bring penalties and a yellow card to the centre José Lima. MacGinty made it 7-6. Then the US fly-half missed a penalty and Portugal made it 10-6 with a penalty of their own, won at the scrum. There was time for one more US shot at goal, MacGinty converting after a tackler failed to roll away.

Forty minutes to France. Portugal up by a point.

The second half started frenetically, the Eagles driving a lineout, dropping the ball and Portugal going 50m through their backs. Then Os Lobos’ pack produced another dramatic shove, skittering Americans for another penalty shot. Marques missed but there was another penalty when Augspurger ran a kick back and the flanker Cory Daniel went off his feet in a flurry. Marques got it this time: 13-9.

It could’ve been worse for the Eagles. Kepeli Pifeleti of Saracens, the hooker, was called for a tackle off the ball but Marques missed the three-point shot.

The Eagles needed a lift. They got it from Benja Bonasso, the New York flanker on to replace Vili Helu of Atlanta. Bonasso nabbed a lineout and the backs broke, Bryce Campbell at centre putting a kick to the Portuguese line. The Eagles smashed and smashed and Pifeleti burrowed over. MacGinty converted for 16-13. The Portugal prop Francisco Fernandes saw yellow, for persistent infringing.

Now it was the Eagles who were 20 minutes from France. Predictably, it all got rather tense from there.

Bonasso picked off more lineouts. With 15 minutes to go, Gary Gold threw on front-row replacements, Mikey Sosene-Feagai at hooker and Jack Iscaro at prop. Sosene-Feagai’s first throw was pilfered but soon after that he was pouring through to pounce on a dropped ball.

Portugal came close, carrying the full-back Mitch Wilson back over the line and earning a 5m scrum, only to be called back to halfway for a knock-on seen by the TV official. MacGinty steered the Eagles back into Portugal territory. After a grubber to the corner, Bonasso messed with another lineout, winning the Eagles’ own 5m scrum.

This was the key moment. The scrum went down twice and Portugal won the penalty. They kicked and chased and Christian Dyer, the Eagles wing, did well under pressure to hold on. The Americans cleared. But there was a minute and change to go. Portugal came again, a drop goal hit the post, but Iscaro had transgressed at a ruck.

Time was up. Marques lined up the kick for the draw and with it a place in France. Straight in front, 35m out. He kicked it. Portugal were on their way.