Volcanoes aim for glory in Asian Rugby Championship Div 1
They may have English, Australian, and American accents when they speak, but the Volcanoes, your Philippine national rugby union team, are very Pinoy indeed. One moment during Monday night's official jersey presentation reveals that.
Standing with a bunch of the Volcs on the rooftop of an office building in Taguig, moments before dinner and the ceremonial handing over of the match uniforms. Harry Morris' eyes wander to the drinks table, where he spots something very interesting.
“Oh, is that buko juice?” the Welsh-Filipino says.
Next thing you know he is unscrewing a bottle of coconut water and having a swig. The other Volcanoes follow suit.
Yes, in their hearts this team is 100% Filipino. But the other thing noteworthy about them is they are also one of the most successful Filipino sports teams ever.
Asian rugby, on the national level, is divided into several divisions based on performance, with a system of relegation and promotion between the levels. The Philippines rocketed through the tiers, winning Division 3 (actually the fourth tier) in 2009, Division 2 in 2010, and Division 1 in 2012.
The Philippines met their match in the elite division of the Asia over the last two seasons, losing heavily to powerhouses Japan, Hong Kong, and South Korea. But a new system is in place that could be good news for the Pinoys.
Recognizing the gulf in quality between Hong Kong, Japan, and South Korea and the rest of the Asian sides, the Asian Rugby Football Union decided to make the top level of Asian rugby a three-team division, re-shuffling the Philippines back to the second tier, Division 1, along with Kazakhstan, Sri Lanka, and Singapore. Which brings us to Wednesday, May 6.
The Philippines will play host to the Division 1 of the Asian Rugby Championship in the Philippine Sports Stadium in Bocaue, Bulacan. There will be a semifinal round on Wednesday with the home team pitted against Singapore and the Sri Lankans taking on the Kazakhs. Semifinal winners meet in the final on Saturday, May 9, as do the semifinal losers.
The champs have the option to face the third-place team in the top level for a shot at promotion while the fourth place Division 1 team could meet the Division 2 winner in a similar contest.
“This tournament will not be easy,” says Oliver Saunders, the team's captain. “Sri Lanka are still ranked higher than us.”
(This despite a 26-25 win at Colombo in 2014's game, a controversial victory since the Volcanoes only edged Sri Lanka by a point after Alex Aronson, the Philippines' place kicker, was given a do-over on his late missed try conversion after the Lankans were adjudged to have left their try line too early in attempting to charge down the kick.)
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“Kazakhstan is going to be very big and physical, but Sri Lanka will be quick,” adds the skipper.
The team is confident of a semifinal win against the Singapore Lions, who they beat 37-20 in 2012. However the players are wary, since the Singapore team has supposedly beefed up nicely in recent times.
Many familiar faces will be playing for the Philippines this week. Jake Letts will possibly be the first-choice scrum half, (roughly equivalent to the quarterback position in American football), while Gareth Holgate will wear the number 15 jersey as the last line of defense at fullback.
Morris will play as a winger, with “The Flying Jeepney” Justin Coveney at center, in the heart of the Philippine attack. Matt Bellenie and Michael Duhig return to the forward pack as does 38-year old Filipino-American Austin “Lolo” Dacanay, who at 38 is the side's oldest player.
Michael Letts, Jake's older brother, has retired at the age of 33 and will not play. French-Filipino Patrice Oliver was not released form his Japanese club for this event but could play for the Philippines in the SEA Games, which is a Sevens (7-a-side) competition.
The rules of World Rugby (née the International Rugby Board), allow countries to field non-nationals who have resided in the country for a thirty six months continuously before playing for their adopted country. The Philippines has taken advantage of that rule to field David Feeney, Chris Anderson, and Papua New Guinean Timothy Bweheni.
“I am very proud to be able to play for the Philippines,” says Bweheni, who is finishing a degree in business in Adventist University of the Philippines. “I have so many friends here and this is like my second home. I love it here.”
The rest of the team has at least one Filipino parent, often times two.
The team has been together training under coach Stu Woodhouse in their facility in Southern Plains, Laguna, for the last two or three weeks.
“The boys are confident and are looking sharp,” says Saunders.
Holgate says that even before the squad convened, the individual players were told to report on their fitness to the squad.
One thing the players are very excited about is the new stadium in Bocaue, whose pitch was described as “perfect” by the Philippine Rugby Football Union's Matt Cullen. The field will also be used for Global's AFC Cup game against Pahang on Wednesday of next week, but Cullen says in most of their training sessions there the team has used flat-soled trainers to reduce wear and tear on the grass.
The Philippines is scheduled to play Singapore at 4pm on Wednesday with Kazakhstan and Sri Lanka tangling at 2pm. If the Volcanoes top their ASEAN neighbors, they play in the championship match on Saturday at 6pm, which is going to be aired on Fox Sports. Tickets are just P100, and the team is offering a shuttle service to the stadium. Details are on the PRFU's official Facebook page.
If all goes well then the Pinoys will be on top of Division 1 on Saturday night, and the legacy of Philippine rugby success will continue. No doubt the players' celebratory drink will be the sweetest-tasting buko juice ever. – Rappler.com
Follow Bob on Twitter @PassionateFanPH.