Rugby-playing dentist Appleton on Portugal's impressive World Cup

2 months ago 10

Tomas Appleton made his first professional appearance at Murrayfield last Friday, but the captain of Portugal was not out on the field with a ball, he was addressing a conference, in his guise as a rugby-playing dentist.

The 30-year-old centre, who led ‘Os Lobos’ – The Wolves – in their acclaimed World Cup campaign, which won hearts and minds on a global scale, was talking about juggling two stellar careers. First, he and his wife planned to do some sight-seeing in the Scottish capital and later, after the speaking engagement, Appleton attended the URC match between Edinburgh and Benetton.

It was a short break from the mayhem back in Lisbon, which has raged since Portugal came home from France to chaotic, euphoric scenes at the airport and in the city. The team have been engulfed by adulation, and Appleton ended up meeting Cristiano Ronaldo for a shirt-swapping photo-call.

His working life is divided between sport and medicine. Appleton qualified as a dentist in 2018, but now he is studying to expand his repertoire further. He has a target in his sights. ‘The plan is to be an oral maxillofacial surgeon – dealing with facial trauma,’ he said. ‘My parents are both plastic surgeons and facial trauma surgeons, so I really have that thing in my head, telling me to do that.’

Appleton has some English genes, as a great-grandfather lived in Manchester before migrating to Portugal. He started playing rugby from a young age, following the example of his older brother – Francisco, and after Tomas had a formative stint as a teenager playing in the Hawke’s Bay region in New Zealand, the pair ended up representing their country together. But Francisco is now a lawyer, living in London, while Tomas has become a hero at home, amid an outbreak of rugby fever.

Tomas Appleton (left) starred for Portugal as they won the adulation of many during the Rugby World Cup 

His working life is divided between sport and medicine after qualifying as a dentist in 2018

Portugal's rugby team caught the attention of the country's football stars, and he was able to swap shirts with Cristiano Ronaldo and meet some of the other stars including Bernardo Silva

Portugal picked up their first ever World Cup win by defeating quarter-finalists Fiji

‘It’s been insane,’ he told Mail Sport. ‘We’re being invited to a lot of events and there has been a lot of hype. During the World Cup, we didn’t understand what was going on, in Portugal and around the world. The moment we realised was when we arrived at the airport in Lisbon. There were thousands of people there, cheering for us. It was crazy.

‘After the win against Fiji, I thought that some people would come – relatives, friends – but not like that. Everyone was shouting and screaming, and singing the national anthem in the whole of the arrivals hall at the airport. The celebrations were amazing.

‘People have asked me, why there was this reaction to how we played – and not just in Portugal. We were underdogs in every game and when Wales struggled to get a bonus point against us, I think people started to understand that we could compete, even though we were the last team to qualify for the World Cup. People probably thought we would get smashed in every game but that didn’t happen. And the rugby we played was quite attractive. Patrice, our coach, taught us French flair!’

The Wolves were becoming a hit and attracting high-profile attention. ‘At our games in France, we had the President of Portugal, the Prime Minister, the Sports Minister and the President of the general assembly,’ said Appleton. ‘Then I also met Cristiano Ronaldo!

‘Straight after the World Cup, we were invited to watch Portugal against Slovakia, the European Championship qualifier. We went to the stadium, to a box just for us, and were told we could go to the locker room after the game. We were supposed to all go, but then they said, “Tomas, you are going to the locker room”. Just me.

‘When I got there, I met a few of the players who I know like Bernardo Silva and Bruno Fernandes. Then I was waiting for Cristiano. It was a nice meeting but a bit short! But he is one of the most famous people in the world, so I understand. It was the first time I’d met him.’

Appleton wanted to find out if the country’s footballers – especially the national icon among them – had been watching any of the World Cup matches. So he asked.

Appleton spoke to Mail Sport at a hotel near Edinburgh Airport ahead of a dentistry conference

‘When I was waiting for him, I was talking to the match doctor,’ he said. ‘I was saying, “I have no idea if you all watch the games or know what is going on”. He said, “The physio room is where everything happens. We turned on the TV for every one of your games and everyone was in there watching. All the players”. I said, “Even Cristiano?”. He said, “Yes”.

‘That’s important; not just for me, or for Portugal, but for rugby throughout the world. If one of the most famous people on the planet shows an interest, it is good to grow awareness of the sport.’

The players who excelled at the global showpiece are now in demand. Leading clubs are believed to be making enquiries about members of a squad who are 50 per cent professional and 50 per cent amateur. And there has been a spike in public recognition.

‘It is every day, when I am in Lisbon,’ said Appleton. ‘The first few weeks were insane, in the streets. I was having lunch with my family and people were asking for pictures. There was a lot of hype. It has calmed down a bit, but it is still happening. I get stopped at the hospital – when I’m there as a student – by teachers and other people.

‘One day, I was in class and the teacher was doing the register. He got to my name and said, “Tomas Appleton – you’re not the guy from rugby are you?”. It’s nice to be recognised for your efforts and accomplishments, and most of us are getting a lot of attention.’

But the big question now is; what happens next for Portugal – after they captivated a worldwide audience at the sport’s biggest event. Like all developing nations, they need games. They will take on England ‘A’ at Welford Road in February, but they need big Tests, regularly, and the chance to strive for inclusion among the game’s elite.

‘We need big games,’ said Appleton. ‘Playing against England ‘A’ will be a good test for us. But there are the top 10 teams who don’t play against anyone else very often, so it is a struggle. In the system, it is really hard for the smaller nations to play against the bigger teams, but if you want to grow the sport, we need that exposure.’

The popularity of Portugal's rugby team has increased with Appleton recognised for his efforts and accomplishments

So does he believe that the sport’s authorities truly support the notion of expansion? ‘I want to think and hope that they really want to expand the sport in smaller countries like ours,’ he said, tactfully. ‘If you show you’re worth it, I think you deserve the chance to be on the big stages.

‘We really identify ourselves with the path Georgia have been on for many years. They have played at a high level for so long, that they need more chances to play in competitions with the big teams. I’m not saying they have to expand the Six Nations, but maybe they should have a look.

‘To be honest, we’re not that far from the Six Nations (standard). We are far from the top teams like Ireland, France and England, but we are getting closer to Italy. The gap is getting smaller and smaller, so I think we deserve our shot at it. Lisbon is a good city, but I’m not sure they would want to do Six Nations matches in Lisbon!’

They should do. What a prospect that is, but – sadly – what a fanciful one. Maybe one day, before his planned retirement after the next World Cup, to commit himself full-time to medicine, Appleton can make an on-field appearance at Murrayfield, and at Twickenham and other leading European rugby arenas. That would indicate that Portugal are being given their fair shot and that rugby is broadening its horizons, at long last.

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