A successful line-out during a recent under-19s game for Loulé Rugby Club
A successful line-out during a recent under-19s game for Loulé Rugby Club

Loulé Rugby Club at the heart of Portugal’s growing love for the game

Ol’Pat really picked a swell time to get back involved in the game of Rugby Union Football. Of course, the entire country is bursting with pride at the accomplishments of the national team in the Rugby World Cup, held in France.

Portugal has only qualified once before in 2007 and failed to win a game in the group stage. This time around, Portugal defeated a strong team from faraway Fiji in an exciting 24 to 23 finish for its first win ever. Fiji still managed to move into the knockout round of the tournament before being defeated by a strong English side.

Before that, the Lobos experienced a heartbreaking, breathtaking 18-18 tie with Georgia, when a penalty kick was barely missed as time expired. In their other two games, the team had relatively impressive showings against Wales 28-8, a highly ranked team that moved on to the quarterfinals before losing to Argentina and Australia 34-14, a perennial world-cup power.

According to some TV commentators, Portugal became “the darlings of the group stages” or “everybody’s other favorite team” because of their exciting style of play featuring excellent ball handling, good speed and a flair for the game that made them fun to watch, win, lose or draw.

My lovely wife and I were lucky enough to attend the Wales game in Nice, France, and we were impressed. The Portuguese team is, for the most part except for a couple of rough-looking squat props, a fresh-faced bunch of youngsters, mostly amateurs, who are surprisingly tough since every team they played had bigger guys.

The Lobos played with almost fearless confidence and made very few mistakes. There were plenty of Portuguese supporters in the stands, all chanting POR-TU-GAL in happy unison. At the hotel where we stayed in Antibes, the Welsh fans were quite impressed by a team they expected to beat by much more. In fact, the game could have been closer even since Portugal missed a couple of makeable kicks.

Even the tykes show an appreciation for the game during a Saturday morning introductory workout at the Loulé Rugby Club
Even the tykes show an appreciation for the game during a Saturday morning introductory workout at the Loulé Rugby Club

You could say that it all started back in August right here in the Algarve, when the Portuguese team hosted the USA in what’s called “a friendly” match in preparation for the World Cup. The game was held in everyone’s favorite white elephant, the usually deserted, but not that night, Algarve Stadium, near Faro.

Portugal was partly responsible for eliminating the US team in an earlier qualifying stage and everyone thought that the Americans would be psyched.  Well, if they were, it only showed for a while when the US went out to an early lead only to be swept off the pitch as Portugal ran away to a 51 to 20 blowout. That game here in the Algarve gave the country’s fans a hopeful sign of what was to come.

Overall, the Rugby World Cup is a fun international event. My lovely wife and I chose wisely and went to three games in Nice along the lovely Côte D’Azur. We enjoyed two other diverting clashes of culture with England defeating Japan, the host of the previous World Cup, 34-12, and Scotland putting away Tonga 45-17.

Both England and Scotland earned births in the quarterfinals, with England moving on to the semis, where they lost by one point to the number-one team in the world, South Africa.

Before each game, along the concourse of the Allianz Riviera Stade, we enjoyed conversations with fans from all over the world, who never seemed to feel the bitter rivalry associated with some other sporting events.

When we weren’t at the games, we enjoyed beautiful views of the Mediterranean Sea, astonishing sightings of gigantic mega-yachts and plenty of fine French wine and food. I am happy to report that we enjoy Portuguese wine just as much; and I have to admit to experiencing some “sticker shock” when the check arrived. Everything and particularly food and drink seemed to cost almost twice as much as what we have become accustomed to when going out to dine in very affordable Portugal.

The Loulé Rugby Club's under-19s happily take the field before a recent game
The Loulé Rugby Club’s under-19s happily take the field before a recent game

The games are also fun to watch on TV, particularly if you’re an American. As our British friends persist in pointing out, the American version of football is very much stop and start, which allows more than ample opportunity for numerous commercials to be shown during the games.

Rugby, like football (some call it soccer), Portugal’s other favorite sport, is a free-flowing game with few breaks or timeouts, which means the enjoyment of the games with ebbs and flows of momentum are not interrupted by repetitious advertisements hawking new fangled electric cars or fast-food burgers. There are plenty of adverts during halftime, which is fair enough.

One of the hotels we stayed in Nice even set up a small beer garden with a wide screen television so we could watch games being played in other parts of France. There, with other friendly, world-travelling rugby fans, we were able to watch the epic South African-Irish game won by Ireland 13 to 8, among others. The final championship game is on TV this Saturday evening (October 28), at 7.30pm, with New Zealand playing South Africa.

Pat, “the Resident’s” leading rugby correspondent, has not just recently jumped on the Portugal rugby bandwagon, even though it was a delightful ride.

Since I grew up in the States, I played in high school what we insist on calling simply football, with its helmets and shoulder pads and forward passes but very little actual kicking. However, I did not play in college and ended up joining the Washington Rugby Club (D.C.) when I was 22 years old and learned the game.

Many people I meet are surprised that an American knows much about rugby or even has played. Yes, rugby is a minor sport in the States, but since the country is so big, it turns out that, in fact, more people play rugby in the U.S. of A. than anywhere else in the world.

After a couple of years playing for Washington, I got a chance to appreciate the international flavor of the game, when my lovely wife and I got teaching jobs in Nassau in the Bahamas for two years and I played for Baylou, one of three clubs on the island.

While there, we once played a team from the crew of the Queen of England’s yacht, another big boat, large enough to field a pretty good 15-man squad. Back in the States, I joined Montgomery Rugby Club, in the county just outside of D.C. and founded and coached a high school rugby team that was nationally ranked.

Pat, the Expat, with some Japanese fans before their game with England at the World Cup in Nice, France
Pat, the Expat, with some Japanese fans before their game with England at the World Cup in Nice, France

During that time, we were visited by five under-19 teams on Spring break from England and won four of those games. Finally, and I mean finally, I joined an old-boys club, where you had to be over 35 to play. The club was called the F.B.I. (the Foggy Bottom Irregulars) and our motto, which was inscribed in Latin on a crest on our shirts translated to “The older we get, the better we were”. Once again, I overstayed my welcome and ultimately retired at the ripe old age of 48. Then I took up golf, by comparison a relatively non-contact sport.

That was 30 years ago, and even though I watched the Six Nations games on TV sometimes, I yearned to be once again part of the rugby community. So last spring, I decided to check out the local rugby club in nearby Loulé. What I discovered (not really a secret, just to expats like me) was an outstanding club with excellent facilities and a welcoming and very capable group of coaches, players and members.

The club, located behind the Parque Municipal de Loulé, is all first-class. The field itself is perfectly maintained and, if I were still playing, would be the best surface I ever set foot on. As far as I’m concerned, it is like playing on lush, plush carpet. I played in over 250 games and there were always bare spots and, a couple of times, puddles so deep the ball would actually float.

The Loulé facilities include comfortable changing rooms, a weight room, a very well stocked equipment room, team rooms, offices and even a very pleasant pub with indoor and outdoor sitting, which is a cheerful place to watch games on TV.

When I played in the States, the clubhouse was often the trunk of my car. We would end up after the game in a roadhouse bar with a bunch of softball players at the other tables. Generous and loyal local sponsors and the City of Loulé and its mayor help to support the club.

As most of us know, it is really the people who make any organization worthwhile, and that is certainly the case with Loulé Rugby. During a recent conversation with André Coelho, the enthusiastic president of Rugby Clube de Loulé, I found out about the tradition and goals of the club. Coelho himself represents that tradition – he has been a player, a captain, a director/team manager, a vice president and now the president.

The only fully active rugby club in the Algarve was founded 41 years ago in 1982 and has been going strong since. With nearly 300 members, the club supports all age groups starting with eight-year-olds and going up every two years with under-10s, 12s and 14s with an emphasis on developing their under-16 and under-19 teams. That’s why they have a very promising senior men’s team.

In addition, the club fields a women’s squad and even, every once in a while, what they call “the veterans” side, what I referred to earlier as “old boys”.

A good example of the leadership’s dedication to the youth of the club is José Moura, the club’s vice president, who literally shows up for every kids’ practice and shows true compassion and patience while introducing and explaining the game.

I feel very lucky that they were kind enough to give me an opportunity to help out coaching some of the younger players and what I’ve observed so far has impressed me. The kids are well coached and have a good understanding of the game.

There’s João Nogueira, for example, the coach I work with the most. This guy knows more drills than I thought possible. I’m the older guy constantly learning from the much younger one. I must admit, I remember when I was an assistant high school football coach winning state championships in Maryland, we used a pseudo-military drill-sergeant approach that included a lot of yelling at the players. The approach of the coaching staff at Loulé is much more professional and constructive with an emphasis on positive feedback and a basis in sound fundamentals.

Now, I’m with the under-16s and under-19s with coach Nogueira and the kids play a similar style as the national team and that’s a good thing.

Coelho told me that the goals he has for the club are simple. He wants the senior team to stay in Portugal’s first division, which means they play all the better clubs around Portugal all the way up to Arcos de Valdevez in the north. When I asked who the club’s major rivals were, he gave an interesting answer. “It’s Évora and Montemor (from Alentejo), but we don’t like the word rivals.”

He went on to explain that they’re simply teams they most appreciate playing. Ol’Pat likes that. You don’t have to consider your opponent the enemy to play hard and give them a good competitive game. Loulé has won the fair-play trophy a couple of times recently demonstrating their commitment to sportsmanship.

Coelho also wants to develop local players through the work with the under-16s and the under-19s, which are the teams I help out with and I’m proud to report that program seems to be working with strong participation and conscientious coaching.

Currently, the under-16s have won one and lost one, while the under-19s won their opening contest impressively. Expat players are very welcome to join the club for an opportunity to play, but the president wants a steady, reliable steam of local players committed to keeping the club alive and well.

Finally, Coelho is always looking to grow the club. So ol’Pat is here to tell you that if you have a youngster who might enjoy a physical game in a positive, caring atmosphere, the Loulé coaches will provide that opportunity. If you’re a fit young adult, with any rugby experience, Loulé will give you a chance to fulfill your potential.

But if you just would like to follow a local club with plenty of spirit and potential, Loulé’s first senior men’s game is November 4 at 2pm at their grounds. Their Facebook page is called ‘Fãs do Rugby Clube Loulé’ or simply drop by at their facility Campo João Adelino Gonçalves by the park.

By Pat the Expat
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For the previous 10 years, Pat lived in Panama which used to be rated above Portugal as a top retirement destination (but not any more), where he wrote a column for a tourist publication.