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On the run . . . North Otago's Catarina Antunes makes a break against Alhambra-Union at Centennial Park in Oamaru earlier this season. PHOTO: PHIL JANSSEN

Rugby is an addiction of sorts for Portugal’s Catarina Antunes, who has been plying her trade with the North Otago women’s side over the past few months.

The 26-year-old from Lisbon arrived in Oamaru in March after being lured to the Waitaki district to play 15 a-side rugby, which isn’t played at women’s level in her home country.

Antunes, who plays first five-eighth or wing for the North Otago side, followed in her sister’s footsteps when she first got involved in the sport more than a decade ago.

“I started playing when I was 15, I followed my sister. We both did athletics but my sister got tired of athletics and decided to give rugby a go, so I followed her and I never looked back.”

She played for Lisbon-based club Sport Lisboa e Benfica, commonly known as Benfica, a club probably best known in this part of the world as one of the giants of Portuguese football.

Antunes said rugby was very much a minor sport in Portugal, with only a very small number of women playing.

“It’s not a big sport, especially women’s rugby. We have only 300 women players in the country so there’s not that many. We only play sevens or 10s, there’s no 15s any more, so that’s part of the reason I came here.”

She said the game was growing slowly, particularly in smaller towns, but its growth had stagnated in the years since Portugal’s men’s side qualified for the Rugby World Cup in 2007.

Antunes enjoyed playing the New Zealand style of rugby, which was different from what she was used to at home.

“It’s definitely a lot different, especially the physical part. In Portugal it’s not as physical as it is here and it’s also a lot faster and the handling is better.”

Antunes, who said she “enjoyed everything” about rugby, had loved her time with the North Otago team, and believed her time with the side had helped improve her game.

“I like the team spirit .. I’m really enjoying it here. The team have been really welcoming so I’m really enjoying it, which will make it hard to leave.

“I’ll miss the girls because I’ve made some really good friends while I’ve been here so I’m going to miss them, as well as playing 15s. It’s an addiction I can’t escape, I guess.”

She had also enjoyed being part of a successful team.

“I think it’s been going really well, especially compared to other years from what I’ve heard. We’ve only lost one game and have had two draws against the top two teams.”

Portugal in October where she will continue studying medicine at the Nova University of Lisbon, and plans to reconnect with her former club.