Taulupe Faletau charged over for a try in the final seconds to secure Wales a potentially vital bonus point in a 28-8 World Cup victory over Portugal after the underdogs produced a brave and highly entertaining performance.
Wales made wholesale changes to the team who came through their thrilling win over Fiji but although this fixture was expected to be something of walkover, it proved not to be amid a frenzied atmosphere in Nice.
Portugal, largely amateur or semi-professional and playing in their second World Cup, did their country proud with ambitious running rugby, forcing the three-times semi-finalists into the scrambling defence they expected to need against Fiji, but not against the Pool C outsiders.
Wales were fortunate to reach halftime 14-3 ahead and the expected second-half surge never materialised. With the clock in the red and the bonus point still not secured, however, evergreen number eight Faletau peeled off a scrum and smashed his way over.
“It wasn’t pretty but we got the job done,” said Wales coach Warren Gatland. “A few of the boys looked a bit rusty having not played together, but we’ll take the win and move on.
“In fairness to Portugal, they put us under pressure they moved the ball well and I was impressed with them.”
Wales top Pool C on 10 points. Australia (five) and Fiji (two) meet on Sunday, with Wales facing Australia next weekend.
Appearing in the World Cup for the first time since 2007, Portugal were true to their promise of playing their own way, but after a series of early attacks it was Wales who went the length of the pitch for the first try as Louis Rees-Zammit gathered his own kick to touch down.
That did not deter Portugal, however, and the locals in the crowd roared their appreciation as they ran everything like the wildest French teams of old – eight of the Portugal team play for French clubs – but also showed powerful ball carrying.
Another Portugal attack from deep finally got them on the board via a penalty from Samuel Marques whose last-minute penalty against the United States in the qualifying playoffs sealed the final World Cup berth.
Wales had the last word with a pushover try for Dewi Lake to give them a 14-3 lead but it was Portugal’s ambitious play that was the talk of the stands during the break.
Wales introduced their version of the bomb squad with a new front row and a change at lock 10 minutes into the second half and the fresh legs helped bundle Jac Morgan over for a third try.
If anyone thought Portugal were about to wilt, however, they were mistaken. They surged forward with their own replacements bringing new energy and after a superb lineout move Nicolas Martins crashed over for a try greeted with a huge roar.
Wales needed another try to secure the bonus point and thought they had it after a brilliant steal by Morgan and a magical run by Rees-Zammit sent Gareth Davies over – only for it be ruled out for obstruction.
Portugal had Vincent Pinto bunker yellow-carded, upgraded to red, as his high boot struck Josh Adams in the face and Wales regrouped and did what they needed to do – just.
“We’re frustrated. We wanted to win this game but we didn’t perform. We didn’t have a solid scrum, we had too many mistakes in the backs and we were punished,” said Portugal captain Tomas Appleton.
“We let the emotions get the better of us and we didn’t show the level of rugby we can. We’re not here just to be a presence, we’re here to win.”