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Philippine Volcanoes: Explosion or extinction?

Expo Mejia
With their last A5N match, the Philippine Volcanoes face the question: explosion or extinction?

MANILA, Philippines — This weekend, the Philippine Volcanoes have one last chance to keep their rugby World Cup hopes alive as they battle with UAE at Rizal Memorial Football Stadium. The stakes will be high, with the winner progressing to the final qualification round next year and the loser condemned to relegation.

Expo MejiaWith 3 losses each in the Asian 5 Nations (A5N) tournament, both are desperate for a positive result on Saturday night. Opposition teams have physically dominated both the Volcanoes and the UAE with a number of injuries now being carried in each squad.

The Volcanoes will be without halfback James Price, their standout player of the series. Price’s ability to get engage the defensive line and to get the attack moving forward will be sorely missed. He will however be replaced by Jake Letts, a very experienced A5N campaigner and a senior leader within the team.

Injuries piling up

Perhaps more worrying will be the fitness cloud hanging over captain Michael Letts. His leadership from the back combined with his ability to ignite the attack has seen him in top form recently. Letts will be given every opportunity to prove his fitness but the Volcanoes will struggle to fill the void should he succumb to injury.

In the forwards, Jake Ward is the major casualty with his broken ribs not fully healed from the first round. However the return of Steve Howorth, Nick Perry and Phil Abraham will add much needed fire power to the forwards.

Apart from Ward (injury) and Jaime Urquijo (unavailable), head coach Jarred Hodges has all the forwards at his disposal for this crunch game. A likely forwards line up could be Dacanay, Abraham and Bellenie in the front row. Perry and Howorth in the second row with Hitch, De Guzman and either Feeney or Carroll making up the back row.

The weight of this pack would be the heaviest used in the series so far. The Volcanoes will need that in order to contain the UAE forwards especially during scrum time. This has proved to be their Achilles’ heel with opposition teams easily driving back the Volcanoes’ scrum resulting in a number of penalty tries.

After 3 years as manager, Matt Cullen returns to the 15s coaching staff taking the place of Stuart Woodhouse who was unavailable. If the forwards can match it with the UAE, Cullen will no doubt be devising ways of getting the ball into the hands of his strike runners such as Coveney, Holgate and Olivier. Out wide is certainly where the Volcanoes hold all the aces.

DO OR DIE. The Volcanoes are in a precarious situation. Photo by Rappler/Josh Albelda.

Battle lines drawn

The battle lines have been drawn. The UAE will look to play for territory and will try to dominate the set piece looking for points through penalties via their rumbling forwards. The Volcanoes will try to unleash their skillful backline who have the ability to score tries from anywhere on the field.

Interestingly, the UAE will start with a slight advantage. A penalty kick against Japan ensured they hold a better points differential going into this last match. Should the fixture end in a draw, the UAE will finish on top. However, with teams receiving a bonus point for scoring 4 tries or more, the situation is a little complex.

A summary of possible outcomes and who will progress to next year’s World Cup qualifiers is as follows:
1. The team that wins the match will progress irrespective of tries scored or points differential.
2. In the event of a draw and both teams score 3 tries or less, or if both teams score 4 tries or more, then the UAE will progress with a better points differential.
3. In the event scores are tied and one team has scored 4 tries or more and the other team scores 3 tries or less, the team with 4 or more tries will progress. 

Both teams will look for the outright win in order to avoid relying on bonus points. However the similarity in score lines during the 2013 A5N series suggests a tied result is not out of the question. Against Japan the Volcanoes lost 0-121 and the UAE, 3-93. Hong Kong defeated the Volcanoes 59-20 and the UAE by 53-7. And against Korea, the Volcanoes were beaten 19-62 and the UAE, 10-75.

Volcanoes possess potent attack 

The Volcanoes have scored five tries in all their matches with the UAE managing only two. This is certainly a good reflection of how potent the Volcanoes attack can be. There is the real possibility that the Volcanoes will score 4 or more tries to earn the bonus point. But of course this is assuming the Volcanoes’ forwards can contain the bigger pack of the UAE.

With Japan clinching their sixth consecutive A5N title last week, Korea and Hong Kong will battle for second place also this Saturday. This match up is also delicately poised with both teams entering the fixture on the same number of points. The Koreans have the advantage of playing at home but the Hong Kong team has the option of playing their 7s stars returning from the London tournament.

Personally, I am leaning towards both home teams getting up on Saturday for narrow victories. The Koreans have looked a more consistent team this year. The returning players for Hong Kong may actually disrupt their team’s chances as none have been involved with the campaign so far.

PH needs to sustain intensity

The Volcanoes have a number of positives going into this crucial match. They have competed strongly at the beginning of each game only to fade off at the end. However, their second half performances have been improving which suggests they are now a fitter and more resilient team. The return of their experienced forwards will also be a major boost.

With Pinoy pride on the line we can look forward to an exciting finale to the series. The Volcanoes are a different team in front of their passionate fans. In do-or-die situations, the Volcanoes have always delivered. They will be relishing this opportunity to prove to the fans, to the entire country and to the international rugby community that they belong in the elite division of Asia.

A large crowd is expected at Rizal Stadium on Saturday night as general admission seating will be free of charge. The game kicks off at 7:00pm and live coverage can be seen on the Solar Sports channel. But even if you do have cable TV, get out to the Stadium and experience the electric atmosphere of a rugby match. Play your part in ensuring our World Cup dream remains alive! –

Expo Mejia is a former national head coach of the Philippine Volcanoes rugby team (2000-02). Born in Manila and raised in Australia, Expo played and coached in Sydney before moving on to other coaching positions in Japan, New Zealand and the USA. Expo has a wide sporting background and has a passion for the outdoor life. He speaks and writes frequently on health and fitness issues.