MANILA, Philippines – In a country of basketball lovers, rugby is an underdog sport competing for fans and funding.
But 24 men have volunteered to represent the country without any compensation when Rizal Memorial Stadium — located in the heart of Manila — becomes host to the first qualification tournament in Asia for the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
They say they are just happy jerseys were paid for.
Rugby is a sport where height doesn’t matter, just strength, strategy and speed as the players try to move a egg-shaped ball to the opponent’s side. Imagine the brutal physicality of football with little to no-padding.Then think about a pitch roughly as expansive as a football field with no timeouts allowed.
More than physical stamina, rugby calls for heart. And in the case of the Philippines Volcanoes — a love of country.
“We don’t get paid to play here,” said 24 year-old Jake Letts, who as the smallest player on the team, values passion and determination. “We choose to play here because it’s fun and we get to represent our heritage and our country. Basically for us it’s not about the money, it’s to play for the Philippines and hopefully win (for the Philippines).”
Though the players on the Volcanoes recognizably have foreign blood, every single one has Filipino blood as well.
After all, who besides a Filipino would pay for his own air ticket and play for free?
More money elsewhere
Since the Philippines doesn’t have a professional rugby league, several of the players in the upcoming tournament, the HSBC Asian Five Nations Division 1, are members of clubs in Australia or Japan.
Internationally, professional rugby players make upwards of $100,000-$120,000 a year, while superstars can make half a million dollars after taxes estimated Volcanoes head coach Expo Mejia.
Jake Letts doesn’t make any money playing in the Philippines but back in Australia he can earn as much as 300 Australian Dollars or about P13,300 per win in a premier competition.
That’s not in the same stratosphere as salaries for professional baseball, which on average surpassed $3 million in 2010, according to the Major League Baseball Players Association in America. However, restrictions on pay for rugby players were only lifted in the 1990’s when the sport officially went professional.
Currently, Europe and Japan are the highest paying markets for rugby players, explained Head Coach Expo Mejia.
Japan in particular is becoming an attractive destination for Pinoy players said team captain Michael Letts, who was recruited to play with the Toyota team in Japan.
“Because we hold an Asian passport, being Filipino, there’s an opportunity to play in Japan because (there) you’re allowed 1 Asian passport player, plus 2 foreign players,” said Letts.
He explained that while European “superstars” are recruited to fill the 2 foreign slots, Asians from Singapore, Korea, Hong Kong or the Philippines generally field the third foreign slot.
Mejia said Japanese rugby teams are well funded because Japanese companies heavily subsidize the sport the same way Filipino corporations support basketball teams.
In the Philippines, there are local basketball teams like the Alaska Aces for the milk company, the Meralco Bolts for the energy distributor and the Petron Blaze for the oil refiner.
In Japan, it’s rugby teams that are named after their corporate benefactors. There are the Panasonic Wild Knights, IBM Big Blue and Honda Heat, all after the giant corporations of the same names.
Mejia said, “(In Japan) companies want to put money into the program because it’s prestigious for them to win.”
A band of unpaid brothers
The equation where professional sports yields money and fame, is turned on its head where the Philippine Volcanoes are concerned.
While several Philippine soccer players have become household names in the last year, big name rugby players like Patrice Olivier and Michael Letts remain unknown to the average Filipino.
Moreover, when surveyed in a group meeting on April 14, 17% of the team members admitted that the most brutal fact facing them is funding.
Still they all showed up to play without pay.
“I’m happy to pay to represent my country. I don’t need anyone to pay me anything, which is why we make our way over here at no charge,” said 24 year-old Luke Matthews.
His older brother 29 year-old Joseph added, “Players don’t only come because they love it, they come because of the other players on the team. It’s a fantastic bunch of brothers, or band of brothers if you like.”
A quarter of the team is literally related. There are 3 sets of brothers: Joseph and Luke Matthews, Michael and Jake Letts, as well as Matt and Oliver Saunders.
One of the oldest members of the team, Joseph Matthews feels like he might as well be related to the other players. In interview after interview, the Volcanoes said the same thing — we all feel like brothers because of our common heritage. We all grew up with the same food.
The squad will face Sri Lanka, Singapore and Chinese Taipei in the tournament starting on Sunday April 15.
They enter the tournament ranked 3rd, behind Sri Lanka and Singapore.
Playing on their home turf, the Volcanoes hope rugby will finally explode in the Philippines. – Rappler.com