Andrew Alderson

Andrew Alderson is a sport writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Rugby: Portugal sweet for Counties stalwart

Portugal are handy enough at sevens to have beaten South Africa and England in Dubai yesterday. Photo / Getty Images
Portugal are handy enough at sevens to have beaten South Africa and England in Dubai yesterday. Photo / Getty Images

Until October 2010, Portugal didn't have many raguebi links to New Zealand.

There was the 108-13 loss at the 2007 World Cup where prop Rui Cordeiro earned fame as the first - and so far solitary - tryscorer against the All Blacks, rumbling across from a pick-and-go. That was about it.

Now there is a closer association. Former New Zealand Maori captain Errol Brain has been coaching them for two years. Their chance to return to the World Cup in 2015 begins with qualification matches against Russia, Spain, Belgium, Romania and Georgia in February and March.

The 44-year-old signed his contract as part of a deal which enables wife Tracy and daughters Molly (15), Bella (13) and Scarlett-Rose (10) to see the world. The IRB invests in Portugal as a second-tier European nation so Brain's contract includes guaranteed education for his children at a reputable international school in Lisbon and regular holidays so the family can travel. It's New York for Christmas this year; last year Vienna got a run.

Summer was spent exploring Italy and his girls have a journey planned to Barcelona this weekend.

Brain has had moderate success. Portugal, ranked 21st in the world, have won eight of his 21 tests in charge against teams at largely similar levels. Last month, they went through a two-test tour of South America unbeaten. Uruguay (22) were defeated at home for the first time in five attempts and Portugal continued a three-match unbeaten record against 25th-ranked Chile. Russia (20), Romania (19), Namibia (24), Spain (18) and Argentina A have been conquered during Brain's tenure.

"The Portugal union are ambitious in what they want and that's great. I wanted a challenge - and here it is, difficult but achievable. I imagine this will be one of the last opportunities for a largely amateur team to make a World Cup."

A couple of Brain's charges are involved in the French Top 14 competition and about 10 others occupy spots at the club level below. The rest play at home.

The local competition is strengthening. Along with the IRB, the Portuguese government invests in rugby with sevens joining the Olympic movement in Rio de Janeiro. Portugal beat South Africa 12-10 and England 22-21 this weekend at the second round of the World Series in Dubai.

Brain knows it's a tough ask convincing Portugal's finest athletes to commit to anything but football.

"Football here is the be-all-and-end-all; it's in the blood, especially with famous teams like Benfica and Sporting Lisbon nearby and Porto further north."

However, the Brains have some compensations for the struggle. They live in Cascais, just out of Portugal's capital Lisbon. The town is home to the five-star Hotel Palacio where scenes for the James Bond film On Her Majesty's Secret Service were shot. A Nato base is nearby, the town hosted an America's Cup preliminary regatta last year and the 64-year-old family business Santini's regularly has customers queuing into the street looking for a scoop of what's considered the country's best ice cream. The Brains have struck gold.

"It's a great lifestyle and a safe country," says Brain, who has also coached at the Toyota club in Japan and consulted to the New Zealand Rugby Union's refereeing unit since his playing days when he led Counties Manukau to consecutive Division One finals in 1996 and 1997.

"Ninety per cent of the country speaks English - and the players prefer it too - which makes me lazy but I can get by successfully ordering a beer and dinner at the local restaurants."

- Herald on Sunday

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