Analysis: Volcanoes crumble after strong start

Expo Mejia
Former Volcanoes coach Expo Mejia talks about the Philippines' sorry loss to Hong Kong in the A5N.

Photo by Rappler/Josh Albelda.

MANILA, Philippines — Eager to make amends for their last outing in the Asian 5 Nations competition, the Volcanoes began the match ferociously. A missed catch by Hong Kong from the kick off enabled the Volcanoes to apply early pressure. With their first attacking raid the Volcanoes earned a penalty and Aronson confidently blasted the kick through to make it 3-0.

The large crowd at Rizal Memorial Football Stadium erupted and the Volcanoes had the start they wanted. Last-minute changes due to injury and the absence of head coach Jarred Hodges proved to be no distraction. With their unbeaten A5N home record on the line, the Volcanoes were hungry for a win.

The first quarter was scrappy at times but the physical battle was enthralling. The Volcanoes were the first to be dealt a blow with Howorth forced off the field in the 18th minute due to a shoulder injury. The loss proved costly, as the Volcanoes lost one of their most damaging runners.

Early lead

With the lighter Rodriguez on, the pack weight advantage of the Hong Kong forwards was further increased and at the next scrum they sent their opponents backpedalling.  With the Volcanoes collapsing illegally, the Japanese referee had no choice but to award the penalty try.

If the Hong Kong team were now expecting a capitulation then they were in for a very rude shock. From the restart, Hong Kong managed to clear the ball but straight into the arms of captain Michael Letts. The fullback skillfully replied with a high kick and a brilliant re-gather. With Feeney charging on to the ball, the powerful lock cleverly kicked ahead for Olivier who outpaced his opposite number and after a slight juggle managed to ground the ball for a great try.

With Aronson’s conversion the Volcanoes were in front again 10-7. As the drums in the crowd beat louder and the Volcanoes’ aggressive defense stepped up, errors were creeping into Hong Kong’s game. As a sign of respect to the Volcanoes, they elected for a penalty goal at the next opportunity rather than push for a try. But a skewed kick left the visitors even more frustrated.

Photo by Rappler/Josh Albelda.

Cruel blow

In the 30th minute Letts scooped on a loose pass to break the line and eventually place the ball under the posts. But instead of a possible 17-7 lead to the Volcanoes it was Hong Kong who hit the front 14-10 after Letts’ try was disallowed. Play was brought back 90m to an earlier infringement and from the ensuing collapsed scrum, Hong Kong were awarded another penalty try.

It was a cruel blow. The hysterical crowd turned silent in disbelief at the 14-point turnaround. Halftime was soon called and although Hong Kong were in front they couldn’t wait to get into the dressing rooms as their forwards seemed to struggle in the steamy conditions.

During the break, the Hong Kong team would have certainly addressed the need for composure. However shortly after the resumption, Volcanoes halfback, Price, busted through and Hong Kong were caught infringing again. Aronson calmly slotted over the kick and the Volcanoes were behind 14-13.

Crucial errors

A single point separated the teams with almost 50 minutes gone and Hong Kong knew they had a real battle on their hands. The Volcanoes were playing with great intensity and buoyed by the crowd, an upset seemed very possible. But two crucial errors from the Volcanoes ensured Hong Kong would coast to victory in the last 30 minutes.

Firstly, Olivier failed to gather a high ball with no pressure from the opposition. From the next scrum, Hong Kong were finally able to break the line as the center, Whiteford, brushed off a weak tackle from Aronson. With Rees in support the winger crossed over for a try under the posts.

Two minutes later, the Volcanoes defense was again prized open with a classic mismatch on the short side. The other Hong Kong center, Maclay, slipped past loosehead prop, Dacanay, to send Rees over for his second try. Some good defending from the Volcanoes on the try line seemed to stop the rot. But another mistake from the scrum proved costly as the Number 8, Tauti, scored a soft try.

Hong Kong has registered 21 points in 8 minutes. Had the Volcanoes scrum been more effective and not conceded those 3 tries, in theory the score could still have been 14-13. But of course, scrummaging is an integral part of top tier rugby and the Volcanoes had certainly paid the price.

Photo by Rappler/Josh Albelda.

Volcanoes crumble

The second incident occurred in the 60th minute with replacement Duhig being sent to the sin bin for a late tackle on the Hong Kong kicker. Perhaps over-enthusiasm led to the lack of discipline as Duhig had only been on the field for 2 minutes. Any chance of a miracle comeback vanished as the Volcanoes were reduced to 14 players.  

Volcanoes players were now missing easy tackles. Tauti and Baddeley beat 4 or 5 in the middle of the field before Whiteford scored his second try. Then an uncharacteristic turn over from a loose carry by Letts enabled Alfonsi to get amongst the try scorers. The crowd was left stunned as Hong Kong led 47-13 with 10 minutes left on the clock.

Letts made up for his previous error with a well-worked move to add some respectability to the score. However late tries from the Hong Kong captain, McNoll, and one to the winger, Chang, pushed the score out to 59-20.

Leigh Jones, head coach for Hong Kong, felt the score line had flattered his team. Supporters were left wondering as to how the Volcanoes could concede 7 tries and 45 points in the last 30 minutes. But of course this is where games are won and lost. The ability to consistently execute skills under fatigue is crucial. Turnovers and one-on-one missed tackles in the second half hurt the Volcanoes when the game was there to be won.

Strong performances from Hitch, Seeto and Hagan led the way in the forwards. Price and Michael Letts had outstanding games once again in the backs. Coveney and Holgate were a constant threat. But maintaining their intensity for the full 80 minutes will be the key factor for the Volcanoes in being able to finish off the campaign with two wins. Tightening their defensive structures will also help contain the opposition behind the advantage line.

Looking ahead, the Volcanoes will face a tough road trip to Korea next week and then UAE at home the week after. Although it was a much-improved performance against Hong Kong, the forwards still need to raise another level in order for the Volcanoes to secure their first victory in the A5N. – Rappler.com