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Portugal Power Sharpening Axemen

António Prim playing against Northern United this past Saturday. PHOTO: Brad Roberts.

  • By Adam Julian

The Wellington Axemen have some Portuguese power propping up their scrum this season. António Prim is a 21-year-old tighthead prop standing 190cm and 120kg.

Prim has started the first four Swindale Shield matches and though the Axemen are winless in 2024, their scrum hasn’t been bettered, and they’ve been more competitive in each display.

This past Saturday the Axemen narrowly lost to Norths 28-20 – the closest they’ve been to a win in 38 consecutive matches stretching back to June 2021.

Their second-half showing in a 20-49 defeat to 2023 Jubilee Cup semi-finalists Johnsonville was heartening.

“I’m aware the club hasn’t been strong the past few years, but we’re getting tighter and there is an optimistic feeling of what is coming,” Prim said.

“We’re definitely improving and that’s the main thing. I feel like the scrums have been going well, but I admit the size of some of the Pasifika boys in New Zealand is surreal.

“My role as a tighthead prop is to dominate the right side of the scrum. This is a part of my game I’m growing. I back my work rate. I can get around the field for 80 minutes every week.

“Honestly, I’m fascinated by the history of the Axemen. I want to help the club get back to winning ways. It’s such a privilege to be here in New Zealand.”

Prim taking the field for his debut Premier match in the opening round against HOBM. PHOTO: Brad Roberts.

Prim has played nine Tests for Portugal. In 2023 he was on the cusp of making the Os Lobos (The Wolves) Rugby World Cup squad.

“I made my debut against Italy in 2021. That was very tough, and we lost 38-31.

“In 2022 I was in the team that qualified for the World Cup in the USA. We beat Hong Kong (42-14) and Keyna (85-0) before drawing with the USA (16-16) to go through.

“Portugal plays in the Rugby Europe Championship which is like the second division of the Six Nations. In 2023 we lost the final to Georgia, the strongest team for a while now.

“I was cut from the World Cup team after the last training camp. That was disappointing but watching my friends play so well from the outside was amazing.”

Portugal caused shockwaves in France holding Georgia to an 18-18 draw and toppling eventual quarter-finalists Fiji 24-23 in Pool C.

“Portugal is football-dominated, but the World Cup became big news on social media. The team was honoured by the President and there was some hype afterward,” Prim said.

“Unfortunately, I don’t think we’ve done enough to build on that momentum. The Union struggles for funding and to be honest rugby in Portugal is seen as a rich man’s sport.

“Typically, those who play rugby have friends or relatives who’ve played. They come from private schools and it’s very Lisbon-focused with eight of the ten premier teams based in the capital.

“Galiza is a good example of a club that has taken a different route. They are based on their outskirts and help those less fortunate. My club Grupo Desportivo Direito supports Galiza by allowing some of their players to use our facilities. The teams also combine at lower levels.

“For rugby to become a truly global sport it has to look beyond the ten most established countries. I think Georgia joining the Six Nations is a good idea. In Portugal, there are initiatives to help us grow. Maybe one day we could get into the Six Nations. That would have a domino effect on growth.”

Prim was introduced to rugby by his uncle who played for rival club Centro Desportivo Universitário de Lisboa (CDUL).

Prim was flown to the International Rugby Academy of New Zealand (IRANZ) for a week in December 2019. It was his 16th birthday present.

“It was amazing to be in that environment and learn from the best. I remember I got man of the match in one game and Sir Graham Henry was there. I spoke from the heart and said it was a privilege to be in the same room as the man who coached the All Blacks against Portugal. Though we lost, that was a landmark for Portugal rugby.”

The All Blacks beat Portugal 108-13 at the 2007 Rugby World Cup. Norths flanker Jerry Collins was All Blacks captain. Despite the hiding, Portugal had two memorable moments.

First-Five Goncalo Malheiro slotted a drop goal from 40 yards. With 279 points in 41 Tests (21 wins), Malheiro is Portugal’s all-time leading points scorer. Rui Cordeiro, a second-half replacement, also scored a try after a sustained period of attack. Cordeiro was a 138 kg prop who played 44 Tests and was a qualified vet.

Former All Black Murray Mexted was Prim’s contact at IRANZ. The pair stayed in touch and when the chance arose to play in New Zealand, Prim was quick to swoop.

His favourite prop is Irish powerhouse Tadhg Furlong (76 Tests, 53 wins) and his fellow countryman is David Costa.

Prim isn’t the first Portuguese player to make an impression in New Zealand. Vasco Batista from Benfica impressed in Auckland. Vasco Fragoso Mendes and Jorg Abecassis made a name for themselves in Christchurch with Abecassis eventually joining the Crusaders Academy.

Prim works at a bar in Thorndon and does gardening and cleaning to get by during the week.

On July 20, World Champions South Africa host Portugal in a historic Test in Bloemfontein. Prim hopes to be selected by new head coach, former Petone and All Blacks first-five Simon Mannix.

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