Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Philippine Volcanoes explode in Asian rugby

By Jaime Augusto Zobel De Ayala
The Philippine Star
http://www.philstar.com/Article.aspx?articleId=582368

Yes, the Philippines has a national rugby team, and they are on a three-year winning streak.

MANILA, Philippines - Something great happened this weekend, an event that would make Filipinos very proud... if they only knew about it. The Philippines, the newest addition and lowest-ranked team in Division 2 of the Asian 5 Nations (A5N) Rugby, destroyed powerhouse Thailand in the semis and home favorite India in the final to win the Division 2 Championship.

Our team, nicknamed the Philippine Volcanoes, is unbeaten in three years in the Asian Rugby Football Union (ARFU), having seized the Division 4 Championship in 2008, the Division 3 Championship in 2009, and now Division 2. With this win, they charge into Division 1 of the A5N in 2011, making this the longest promotion streak in ARFU history.

Amazing, given that until last year the Philippines wasn’t even a full member of the International Rugby Board. More amazing when you consider that few people (most of them expats) follow or care about the sport locally.

The Philippine Volcanoes dominated their larger opponents in the final, restricting the Indian team to scoring at the beginning and at the end of the match. “It was a physical game with India,” says team captain Michael Letts. “The boys stepped up to the plate and did what they were told. Our forwards laid the platform for the team.”

“Coach Expo Mejia taught us discipline,” adds Oliver Saunders, who with his brothers Ben and Matt had scored a combined 38 points in the Filipinos’ 55-33 victory over Thailand in the semifinals. “The team stuck to the game plan and structure. And we never gave up.”


“The team showed aggressiveness,” coach Mejia notes. “A lot of our players play overseas, and their experience showed. There was unity among the team. Tactically they got it right and did everything that was asked of them. Another factor is that they are very fit.”

Phil Abraham was named Man of the Match in the semifinal against Thailand, and Chris Hitch in the final against India. All 24 players on the roster were able to play.

I learned of the existence of the Philippine Rugby Football Union (PRFU) when I was contacted by their secretary-general Alvin San Diego. When Jessica Zafra interviewed me for The Philippine STAR I had mentioned my passion for rugby, which I played in school in England from the age of 9 to my late teens. I was impressed by what the PRFU had achieved with the most modest of resources, and their determination to put together an effective Philippine rugby program and team.

It turns out that there is plenty of Filipino talent playing rugby abroad - both Filipinos of mixed ethnicity and those whose parents had migrated. The PRFU has a formal process for identifying and recruiting Filipino talent throughout the world, among them Expo Mejia, a first-class Filipino coach who had worked with the Waratahs in Australia. The Waratahs are a household word in Australia; many of their players have played for the Australian national team.

It was clear that the PRFU board, which includes committed expats like team manager Matt Cullen, were serious in their efforts. Globe CEO Ernest Cu and I committed to watch the national team and help them with sponsorships. As an enabler of communication across national borders, the support of a telecom company like Globe had resonance and relevance.

The newly formed Philippine Volcanoes played an exhibition match last week against the Parañaque-based team Nomads. They had not yet played together as a team, but they were physically imposing, well-trained athletes who obviously played at the competitive level. It was fascinating to see Filipinos from different countries come together to play at home. I have always believed in the Global Filipino, and this is an extraordinary example of the Pinoy talent that resides all over the world.

According to coach Mejia, there are many other nationally ranked Filipino heritage players he could not get hold of for personal and professional reasons, from a massive prop forward in the national league in Italy to players in Japan.

I was also impressed by the commitment of the players. I asked one of the players, Justin Coveney, what he did and he said he was a lawyer in Sydney. When I asked him how he got time off to come and play in the Philippines with no pay or professional commitments he said, “When my firm heard that I was coming here to play rugby and represent my country of origin, they let me go without a moment’s hesitation, with full pay. Representing your country in a rugby match is the highest honor anyone can achieve.”

This weekend I was glued to two different rugby tournaments on two continents at the same time. I was physically present for the inaugural US Collegiate Sevens in Columbus, Ohio, where my son Jaime Alfonso was playing on the Harvard team. Meanwhile, I followed the Asian Division 2 championship half a world away, in New Delhi, India, through text updates from my sister Bea. She was in Delhi to cheer on her son Jaime Urquijo Zobel, captain of the Notre Dame University rugby team until he graduated this year, and now a member of the Philippine men’s 15’s rugby national team.

Family ties are the real glue of Philippine society. Some will question just how Filipino the national rugby team is, with players named Saunders, Morris, Letts, Zappia on board. This is a Filipino heritage team in accordance with International Rugby Board standards, composed of players with a Filipino parent or grandparents. Any doubts as to whether they are Pinoy are erased when one sees the team’s entourage: Filipino mothers and fathers, traveling at their own expense to support a Philippine team few of us know about. There are four sets of brothers on the RP team (the names listed earlier), surely a record in any sport.

I relayed the ongoing match scores by text to Jessica in Manila, who posted them on her blog while waiting for the A5N Twitter feeds. Incredible what technology now allows us to do. It was particularly engaging because a small group of spectators around me in the stands in Columbus wanted to be kept informed about the results of the Philippine Rugby team on the other side of the world. Every time our Philippine team scored in Delhi, a small group of spectators would cheer in Columbus, Ohio for no reason that was obvious to the rest of the crowd. It happened quite a bit as the Philippine team scored regularly - it was quite surreal.

Rugby is a highly physical and demanding sport that has moved from its “amateur” roots to a global sport at both the 15s and Sevens level. You now regularly see small Pacific countries like Samoa and Fiji play alongside traditional powerhouses like England and New Zealand, and win! Not only is it exciting to watch, but this is a game that is bringing together the diverse Filipino talent across the globe. To watch a team come together from all over the world, and to see the players so excited and proud to represent their mother country, has been moving and fulfilling. I look forward to seeing them hoist a medal at the Asian Games. - With Jessica Zafra

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