Tomás Appleton: Cherishing his time in Darlington, the importance of life experiences and Portugal

Appleton spent some time in National One with Darlington Mowden Park where he faced teams such as Ampthill, Wharfedale and Fylde
©Darlington Mowden Park

Portugal stumbled in their first post-Rugby World Cup game but quickly came back to their feet and now the Lobos are preparing for another Men’s Rugby Europe Championship semi-final. 

After being on the wrong end of a 15-try 91-5 scoreline against England ‘A’ last Sunday at Mattioli Woods Welford Road, they have now switched their attention to Spain and a place in the Men’s REC final.

"The England ‘A’ game did present itself as an opportunity for our talents, and I hope it boosts their interest in getting to the next level," Portugal skipper Tomás Appleton tells TRU despite the disappointing result.

But within this, the important word which Appleton uses is ‘opportunity.’ With some of Portugal's players playing their club rugby in different countries such as France, the value of experiencing other competitions and testing yourself against high-level opposition is seen as crucial to individual and collective development.

"Definitely,” agrees Appleton when asked about playing club rugby outside of Portgual and taking opportunities. “I think it is a necessary step if rugby is a cornerstone of your life. Sometimes it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It can change your destiny forever or, at least, change the way you view things, and it will stick with you forever. 

"A professional or semi-pro experience is something a young Portuguese player should search for, even if it is just for one or two years."

On that note, we go back in time, more precisely back to 2015, when Appleton signed for Darlington Mowden Park in National One, playing one season abroad.

"I cherished my time in England and Darlington. I have great memories from that time. The first recollection of when I started playing there was the difference in competitive level between Portugal and England. 

“In CDUL [Centro Desportivo Universitario de Lisboa], I was used to winning almost every weekend, and we had some games that were 100 per cent one-sided whilst in National League One, that didn’t happen. The league was a spectacular challenge for anyone, and it gave me a boost for what came next.

"Another memory from that season was the home factor. The most suited word to describe the atmosphere is’ hostile.’ 

"Whenever we played at home, I remember the genuine frenzy of our fans supporting us, and trying to make things hard for the opposition. At the same time, every trip was also a “battle”. There was a profound love for the club, and a devotion that knew no limits, which adds a more thrilling and enticing flavour to any competition."

Now running down memory lane, Appleton talks us through some of his most prominent recollections from his time in England.

“As I told you before, every away game was a “battle”, not only due to the physical clash but also because of the home fans who were always prepared to cheer for their team. 

“There was a trip that we drove for eight hours, closed inside our team bus, and the pitch was almost at the peak of a mountain or hill. I don’t remember if it was Ampthill or another club, but the atmosphere was unreal and special. There was also a pitch with a medieval wall surrounding it. An away game was always a unique experience that I will cherish forever.”

Darlington was a massive step for the now 68-capped Portuguese international, and there were good lessons learned from his time in England.

"Darlington was my first experience as a professional player, especially in the strength and conditioning aspect. The ‘Big Boys’ club was a real thing in England, and every player was a giant. I was smaller compared to the average centre, as most had a bulky physical shape. It changed my view of what being a pro player was, and what I had to do to remain at that level.

"Something that caught my eye was the link between clubs. Darlington worked closely with the Rotherham Titans and Newcastle Falcons, providing us with some athletes who needed game time. It was a win-win situation, and I really do think it works well.

"I also had the luck of living the 2015 Rugby World Cup up close, and Darlington made it possible for me to watch the All Blacks train up close.

"Darlington was a chapter of my life that contributed to the player I’ve turned out to be.”

And since his time in the North-East of England, Appleton has continued to gather experience after experience culminating in last year’s remarkable World Cup campaign with Portugal.

Sharing special moments on the field with the likes of Rafael Simões, Manuel Cardoso Pinto, and Nuno Sousa Guedes ‘have left a significant footprint’ on Appleton’s life whilst coming up against players such as Georgia centurion Merab Sharikadze has ‘inspired’ the Lobos captain to continue to better himself.

Facing world champions South Africa in July will be the next major milestone for Appleton and as for what is next for Portugal in general, the former DMP man just asks for more games and bridges between the top sides and the emerging nations.

“We need a change, as we need more games against those who are at the top of the ranking,” Appleton says.

"In almost 15 years, Portugal’s first game against a top 10 team was Japan in 2021. We can only grow if there’s a chance to share a pitch with England, South Africa, Australia, Wales more often.

"Portugal came from a very dark place, as we were relegated in 2015 to the Rugby Europe Trophy, and built up from there. 

"We can’t fail to capitalise on the opportunity to reach another level, but Georgia’s current situation is troublesome. They have done all they can [winning the last six Men’s Rugby Europe Championships and into another semi-final against Romania on Saturday], but have still so few games against the top, and that is an issue that we have to solve in the future.”

For now, the near future for Portugal is their Men’s REC last-four tie against Spain on Sunday. In 2023, the Lobos booked a ticket to the Championship final after successfully defeating the Leones in the Estádio of Restelo, and Appleton has the ambition to repeat the same feat.

“We expect a strong Spanish team, and they will be 100 per cent motivated for what is a 'derby' in every sense of the word.

"It’s one of the greatest challenges, especially this year, as both sides are renewing their set-ups, which is an additional challenge. I deeply believe that we can win, more so after the tremendous victory we earned against Romania two weeks ago. If we want to be at the level we were in 2023, we can’t fail to impress yet again in the semi-final."


2019 Rugby World Cup Points Table