Grassroots support, Olympic dream power Philippine Volcanoes
MANILA, Philippines – It was a steamy Sunday afternoon in McKinley Hill stadium in Taguig. The Volcanoes were huddled under the shade of the grandstand but they weren't in a scrum. They were intently watching footage on a smartphone.
It's football all right, but not rugby.
The boys ooohed and aaahed at the exploits of Jarryd Hayne, the Australian rugby league player who has "switched codes," and is now starring for the San Francisco 49ers of the NFL in pre-season play. (Rugby league is similar to the rugby union the Volcanoes play in, with a few differences.)
The Volcanoes marveled as Hayne jukes and jinks his way around defenders for a huge gain; in another clip, he takes a kick return deep.
The Volcanoes are not quite ready to switch sports yet, but like Hayne, they are hoping to venture into uncharted territory. These athletes hope to crash the biggest party for any athlete: the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games. Yes, after an absence of 92 years, rugby – the sevens variety – will be back in the 5-ringed sporting circus.
Team captain Jake Letts and company already brought the nation glory when the sevens team ran riot against other ASEAN teams and won gold in the 2015 SEA Games. That triumph helped salve the pain from the Asian Rugby Championship final loss to Sri Lanka earlier this year.
Now, the team sets its sights higher.
The 15-a-side team may be stuck in the second tier of Asian rugby, but the sevens side will try to make the Olympics at the Asian qualifier from November 7 to 8 in Hong Kong. (Last year they played in the Sevens World Cup in Russia).
The Pinoys are grouped in a pool with the United Arab Emirates and the hosts. Other top nations in the 12-nation competition are powerhouse Japan, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Chinese Taipei, Iran, and an up-and-coming China team.
Only the tournament champion is assured of a slot in Rio. The next 3 teams go to a “repechage” (second-chance) qualifier with teams from around the world at a still confirmed date.
The November qualifier follows 3 separate tournaments for the sevens, known cumulatively as the Asian Sevens Championship of the Asian Rugby Football Union: Shanghai from September 5 to 6, Bangkok 3 weeks later, then Colombo in Sri Lanka from October 10 to 11. (Teams typically play multiple short matches in a two-day sevens tournament.)
Inspiring the next generation
No doubt, if the Volcanoes win, they will inspire a generation of young Filipino rugby players.
The Sunday huddle was Megaworld's welcome party for the team. While the occasion heralded a partnership to use McKinley Hill Stadium for training, it was also the monthly tournament for young Flipino rugby players.
An astonishing 180 young rugby players represented several teams in the 6-a-side touch rugby tournament. (In touch rugby, only a touch on the ball carrier is needed to make a player stop and recycle possession, unlike the tackling in the other two codes.)
The teams came from all over Luzon – the Alabang Eagles and CBRE Mavericks from the metropolis; Subic, Clark, and Bulacan also fielded squads. Some charitable organizations like the Tuloy Foundation, SOS Foundation, and Haven for Children also have rugby programs for underprivileged kids.
There were some foreign players, but the overwhelming majority were Filipino born and bred.
By midday Sunday, young kids scampered on the artificial turf in McKinley Hill Stadium. Incredibly, some even played barefoot, a dicey proposition on a plastic-and-rubber field that can get scorchingly hot. There were even a few girls, apparently inspired by at the Lady Volcanoes, who were present. Like their male counterparts, the girls played friendly games with the youngsters.
The Lady Volcanoes, a totally homegrown side, impressed many with their bronze medal in the SEA Games – arguably a greater achievement than the men's gold, as many in the female team took up the game only recently.
The McKinley Hill deal will also be a boon for the team. The Volcanoes will use the facility for midweek training, then have their pre-tournament camps in their base in Southern Plains in Laguna, which has facilities for a proper closed-door training camp, including a grass field.
No doubt the side has been blessed with sponsors. CBRE Philippines head Rick Santos is a Filipino-American who played collegiate rugby in the states, and president of the Philippine Rugby Football Union. CBRE also employs Volcanoes Kenneth Stern and Alex Aronson. Retailer HMR and Fila, the official outfitter, also chip in. Australian Harvest oatmeal features the Volcanoes on their promotional materials.
Philippine rugby continues to progress, and the biggest try line – in Brazil – could very well be within reach. – Rappler.com
Follow Bob on Twitter @PassionateFanPH.