From refusal to rugby stardom: The journey of Nicolás Martins

Nicolás Martins and Portugal will be hoping to take positives from this summer - as they did at last year's World Cup in France
©Photo by Michael Steele - World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images

At the tender age of 14, Nicolás Martins faced a pivotal decision that would shape his future in rugby. 

He was offered the opportunity to become a referee, but Martins opted for a different path, one that led him to don the jersey of Portugal and make his mark on the international stage.

“When I was young, I was offered to become a referee if I could not become a rugby player. I refused and decided to change clubs,” he tells TRU.

Martins' journey in rugby began in Tournefeuille in Toulouse, and one of Portugal’s stars at last year’s World Cup will continue his career in France after recently signing for Top 14 side Montpellier.

Rewinding back to his younger years, Martins transitioned seamlessly into senior rugby. His dedication saw him advance to Castant in Fédérale 1 in 2021/22 however, his initial season in what was then France’s fourth division was thwarted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite the setback, Martins' talent and determination caught the attention of Soyaux Angoulême XV Charente, leading to a contract in Pro D2.

Concurrently, Portugal came calling, offering Martins a chance to join their summer tour in 2022. This marked the beginning of his international career as he went on to help secure Os Lobos' spot at the 2023 World Cup.

“At the same time I signed for Pro D2, Portugal contacted me to participate in the summer preparation match,” he says,

“Whilst playing for Portugal, we qualified for the draft tournament for the World Cup, thanks to the disqualification of Spain and we went on to win the tournament that qualified us for the World Cup.

“When the Pro D2 season ended with the maintenance of the club, that’s when I went to Lisbon to prepare for the World Cup.

“After two months of preparation, the World Cup began with a loss to Wales, followed by a tie with Georgia, a loss against Australia and ended with an incredible win against Fiji for the first time in Portugal’s history.”

Reflecting on his journey, Martins attributes much of his success to his ‘competitive spirit’ and the guidance of influential figures like coach Jonathan Dexpert.

His evolution as a player has been fueled by a relentless pursuit of improvement and a deep-seated passion for the game.

“I think most of my success has come from a coach called Jonathan who trusted me and helped me improve. He trained me as a junior in Tournefeuille,” Martins explains.

“There was also an awareness of what I really wanted to do in rugby as well as my competitive spirit for the game.”

As he now sets his sights on new horizons with Montpellier, Martins aims to play a pivotal role in the club's rebuild after the Top 14 outfit avoided relegation following a 20-18 victory over Grenoble in the ‘Access Match’ last month.

On signing for the club, Martins told TRU: “Montpellier is a great club that is under reconstruction after a bad period. I hope to be a part of this reconstruction.

"I believe the Top 14 to be the best championship in the world. It’s truly incredible to have the opportunity to evolve at this level.”

In a sport where versatility is paramount, Martins then emphasised the need to adapt and excel in various facets of the game.

The athleticism and strategic vision displayed by Toulouse back-row Jack Willis in the recent Top 14 final is something the Portuguese international is also hoping to showcase for his new club.

“My athletic qualities help me a lot to catch up to opponents and rob [possession],” he says. “ I would also say my vision allows me to find spaces and opportunities in the game.

“I often watch rugby videos and analyse my matches, as well as my training, to see what worked and what didn’t. I work hard physically to be as efficient as possible.

“I think the flanker position has evolved a lot. You have to be able to do just about everything. We need to be everywhere and if the opportunity arises, create a turnover.”

Drawing inspiration from legendary players like Richie McCaw and Thierry Dusautoir, Martins aspires to leave a lasting impact through his actions rather than words.

As a flanker, he embraces the responsibility of being the team's insurance, relentlessly pursuing turnovers and disrupting opposition play.

“They are two of the biggest players of all time. They are leaders on the ground and thanks to their actions, they inspired me. I’m not a big fan of speeches or anything, but as soon as I’m on the field I do my best to help the team as much as I can.

“Our profiles differ, but their state of mind and their impact on the game as a whole has really resonated with me as a player and as a man.”

Looking ahead, Martins acknowledges the challenges that lie in front of Portugal in their quest for rugby prominence as they aim to build on the positives of the last year.

However, he remains steadfast in his commitment to continuous improvement both on an individual and collective level.

“For me, it’s my role to catch up to others. You have to be the team's all-risk insurance. I put pressure on myself only for the tackles. I never want to miss a single one. We have to anticipate the challenges and analyse the opposing team.

“There is still a lot of work to be done [for Portgual]. We must continue to progress to exist even more in matches against big nations. We still have a long way to go.

“I wish to continue to play at the highest level of rugby, be able to play great matches against major nations and why not finally be European champion [after losing 36-10 to Georgia in this year’s Rugby Europe Championship final], but also become a recurring team at the Rugby World Cup.

“For this, it will take stability, a development of rugby in Portugal through the upcoming youth. I think it’s the love of the game that makes emerging players. You have to train them well and train them to reach the highest level and above all,  go to the big championships to facilitate and increase the progress of the players.”

Martins also touches on former All Blacks fly-half, Simon Mannix, becoming Portugal’s new head coach after succeeding Sebastien Bertrank.

“I don’t really have an opinion, he did coach at the highest level [with Racing 92 and Munster] and knows the game well,” says Martins. “He knows French rugby well [having coached at Pau and Biarritz].

“He’s a coach who just loves the game and we’ll see if all this can lead to something beautiful.”

Martins is linking up with Mannix as Portugal head into summer fixtures against Namibia and South Africa before they face Scotland in November.

“We have the chance to play against South Africa and Scotland," he adds. "If we could add France or Ireland, that would be magical. South Africa are world champion title winners and the others are among some of the best teams in Europe. These matches could only be beneficial for us and help make us grow.

“I think Murrayfield is a mythical rugby stadium. Playing there against Scotland will surely be one of the most beautiful games of my career if I have the chance to participate.”

For Martins, his journey from a young rugby enthusiast in Tournefeuille to the international stage will continue this month. He serves as an inspiration to aspiring players and a beacon of hope for Portuguese rugby's future.

“My advice for young aspiring players would be to work hard, make more effort than others, even if it is not seen at the beginning, keep going. Above all, never give up on your dreams because anything can happen.”


2019 Rugby World Cup Points Table