MANILA, Philippines – There has been little fanfare over the men’s Philippine rugby team, but the Philippine Volcanoes are about to face their toughest challenge yet.
On their first trip to Hong Kong Sevens ever, the most high-profile sevens event in the world, the team looks to bring pride to the country and shake off the underdog tag that has pervaded the squad.
It is the first time the men’s rugby team has qualified for the prestigious tournament — whose website describes the Philippine team as “the success story of Asian rugby.”
The team first appeared in the international scene 6 years ago in 2006, but since then, has advanced from the Fourth Division to the First Division and have progressed in the HSBC Asian Five Nations.
Despite the huge feat of qualifying for the prestigous Hong Kong tournament that gathers the best 24 rugby teams in the world, the Philippine Volcanoes have gone largely unnoticed, especially due to the recent historic win of the men’s Philippine football team in the AFC Challenge Cup 2012.
But the team, made up largely of half Filipinos like the Azkals, is determined to leave their mark.
Five months ago, before the team competed in the second leg of the HSBC Borneo Rugby Sevens Tournament, head coach Matt Cullen made a bold prediction.
“I think in the next 12 or 18 months, people in the Philippines are going to know who the Volcanoes are,” he said. “Not only for (the Bench) billboards but because we can play rugby and we’re going to win here in Asia.”
The team went on to finish in the top 4 of the HSBC Asian Sevens Series, earning a ticket to the HSBC Sevens World Series in Hong Kong. (Watch what the team had to say before qualifying: Philippine Volcanoes on the 2011 Borneo 7s Rugby Tournament).
At the first stage of the competition, the Volcanoes face Canada on Friday, March 23 at 4:22 pm. On Saturday, March 24, the squad challenges two teams: Spain at 9:52 am, and Zimbabwe at 3:00 pm.
New Zealand favored to win
World Series leaders New Zealand are favorites to retain their Hong Kong Sevens crown this weekend but face a tough pool including South Africa and Wales.
New Zealand, still basking in their World Cup triumph in the 15-a-side game in October, top the HSBC Sevens World Series and are seeking their 11th triumph.
New Zealand coach Gordon Tietjens said his side faced a tough battle to hold on to their title in Hong Kong, the sixth stop in the nine-leg series.
“There is always pressure to perform at IRB (International Rugby Board) tournaments, especially Hong Kong. It is one of the toughest draws in Hong Kong during all the years I have been coaching,” Tietjens said.
“There are no easy games in the pool stage and we need to play our strongest team in every game and some players may not get as much game time as they normally might.”
The Kiwis are currently top of the series standings on 92 points. Their closest challengers Fiji are on 87. South Africa have 76 and England are fourth, a further two points adrift.
But with unpredictability a feature of sevens — a high-octane, abbreviated form of rugby union with matches of just 14 minutes, the table could look very different by the end of the weekend.
The event is a highlight of the city’s social calendar, particularly for expats. Each year thousands of fans pour in from around the world, cramming bars and donning fancy dress.
England coach Ben Ryan said Samoa, Argentina and Kenya would prove tough pool opponents.
“We have to play as well as we can really. We have a difficult pool, three very good opponents and can’t look beyond Argentina on Friday night,” he said.
“The tournament is a lot harder, no easy games. But it is still Hong Kong, still a special place.”
“It’s got more competitive than it was last year. The top teams are still there but the teams below are playing better and you have to work much harder and not slip up.”
Traditional powerhouses such as the Kiwis and Fiji, who have won a record 12 times in Hong Kong — including two world cup wins — are also keeping their eye on potential dark horses such as mid-table Kenya.
Samoa, who lie fifth in the series standings, stunned New Zealand with a last-gasp victory in the final of the US leg of the World Series last month.
But New Zealand remain the team to beat, despite the challenge from the likes of South Africa and Wales, who will be lifted by the Six Nations grand slam win by their 15-a-side counterparts.
This year’s tournament, which runs from Friday until Sunday, doubles as a qualification event to identify three new teams to participate in an expanded 15 core team world series next season.
A 12-team core team competition will contest the Hong Kong Sevens cup, plate and bowl with points being awarded in the world series standings.
A separate qualification tournament will be held for the remaining 12 teams. The top three finishers gain automatic entry to the sevens world series in 2012/13. – With reports from Agence France-Presse
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