The Portugal anthem, A Portuguesa, is a rousing song that praises “heroes of the sea” and calls on its people to fight for their country and hoist high “an undefeated flag”. Advance Australia Fair has its moments, but it doesn’t quite stir the blood in the same way.
Perhaps it was the contrasting tempos of each anthem that accounted for the contrasting body languages of the two teams just before kick-off. The men in red looked ready to maul a herd of buffalo. The men in gold looked a little lost and dispirited.
Of course this had nothing to do with melodies and lyrics. Australia started the game ranked 10th in the world, their lowest ebb in their history. On a weekend that saw two blockbuster finals in the AFL and NRL take place at home, the mood around a code already consigned to the fringe flitted between dour and indifferent.
It was no surprise that Portugal scored the first try. Their backline, marshalled by the brilliant 22-year-old fly-half Jerónimo Portela, played the sort of carefree, swashbuckling rugby that was once synonymous with the Wallabies. Down the line, slick hands, pinpoint passing and Pedro Bettencourt was over in the corner. Australia had notched three points with a penalty from Ben Donaldson, but they were now behind in a game that they really should be winning in second gear.
It was almost inconceivable. Granted this has been a time of great upheaval in the game, where the head coach has been accused of flirting with foreign boards and the man in charge of the whole operation snidely told frustrated fans: “If you don’t like it, don’t watch.” But losing to Portugal? Surely not.
Bettencourt’s high shot on Izaia Perese saw Portugal reduced to 14 men and with that numerical advantage Australia scored three tries in a ten-minute blitz. Richard Arnold burst over from short range. Captain David Porecki did likewise and the impressive Angus Bell followed suit. Porecki said after the game that a lack of grunt up front has been a major problem of late so it was heartening to see some of the big boys land a blow.
At the heart of everything that worked was Rob Valetini. The No 8 made 71 metres with ball in hand, mostly running into traffic. He made 11 tackles and was a key figure in the link-up play around the fringe. If any individual deserved to win a game of rugby it was him. Unfortunately too few Australians matched his energy.
Too often their attack was stodgy and aimless. Too often they hoofed a nothing kick to noone. Their scramble defence held firm, and they built a solid wall in their own red zone, but this backs-to-the-wall stoicism needs some context.
They were not facing a bombardment from a Springboks bomb squad or an Irish pack drilled to perfection. That was not Richie Mo’unga or Antoine Dupont running the show. This was Portugal, a team playing their first World Cup since 2007. And though Porecki and Valetini rightly praised their opponents after the match, it was hard not to wonder what one of the better sides in the competition would have done to such an inexperienced outfit.
That’s just one way of looking at it. Another would be to wonder what a more experienced side would have done to Australia. Portugal had two tries disallowed and coughed up numerous chances within striking distance. Their hooker, Mike Tadjer, twice spilled the ball with the try-line within reach. Australia won tonight. It’s a win that means their flights home can be delayed until Fiji secure just the single point they need against against Portugal next week. But this could, and perhaps should, have ended differently.
At full-time there were no great celebrations. They didn’t even look relieved. They wore the same blank expressions they had when they got going. “We’re still alive,” Eddie Jones said of his team doing their best impressions of zombies. “We showed plenty of courage and fought hard. We’ve done that all season, sometimes the results haven’t been in our favour … well, most of the time.”
Porecki echoed that fighting spirit and said he was proud of his charges. “It has been a tough week for us obviously but to turn it around and get a win like that tonight is good for our group,” the captain said after the game.
Where to from here? Not quite yet to the airport and the long journey home. But with their World Cup all but over, this will prompt deep and important introspection. The two-time champions host the world in four years’ time. Before that they will welcome the British & Irish Lions. Change is needed and it’s needed fast. More of the same and hard-fought wins against Portugal will one day be celebrated with gusto. With respect to the opposition, Australian rugby should be aiming higher.