Analysis: Volcanoes erupt to keep World Cup dream alive

Expo Mejia
Former Volcanoes coach Expo Mejia talks about the rugby team's win over UAE in the HSBC A5N Cup.

MANILA, Philippines — The Philippine Volcanoes have defeated the UAE, 24-8, to cement their spot in the elite division of Asian rugby.  The win ensures they remain in World Cup contention with the final qualification round taking place next year.

Expo MejiaFrom the start, the Volcanoes showed they were on a mission. A massive tackle from the kick off forced the UAE to turn the ball over and the Volcanoes applied early pressure. Chris Hitch soon crossed over for the first try followed by another breakaway try to Gaz Holgate.

The Volcanoes were up 12-0 and controlling the match comfortably. The large vocal crowd was in a buoyant mood. However, as the game progressed, scoring became more difficult.

Promising attacks broke down from simple errors. Without a hint of rain, it was the sweat from the players’ jerseys that made the ball greasy and difficult to handle. An arm wrestle developed and the UAE were slowly grinding their way back into the contest.

Early rally doused

Some poor kicking from the UAE flyhalf ensured the Philippines kept their 12-point lead late into the first half. 3 missed penalties in a row meant the UAE had squandered 9 points. But the UAE was given one last attacking chance before halftime.  A successful driving maul from the lineout resulted in a try and they trailed 12-5 at half time.

After the break, the UAE continued from where they left off. More pressure resulted in a successful penalty attempt and the score was now 12-8.

A late tackle off the ball from Volcanoes hooker, Graeme Hagan, produced a yellow card from the referee. The UAE threw everything they had at the Volcanoes but they lacked the skill and patience to execute.

The UAE had squandered their one-man advantage and Hagan was back on the field ready to make amends. In the 67th minute he did just that with a perfectly timed run breaking through the UAE defense to score a try next to the posts.

Photo by Rappler/Josh Albelda.

World Cup dream still alive

With score at 19-8, the UAE had to score at least twice in order to avoid relegation. It was clear, however, that the harder they tried the worse it got. Trying to play catch-up rugby did not suit their style of play and the Volcanoes defense was certainly up to the task.

The Volcanoes had also blown a number of good scoring opportunities to put the game away. It wasn’t until the 80th minute that Matt Saunders was rewarded for his heroics. A great individual try capped off a magnificent night for him and for the Volcanoes.

The 24-8 victory means the Volcanoes will battle with Japan, Korea, Hong Kong and Sri Lanka in the 2014 A5N Elite Division. This also acts as the final World Cup qualifiers. The winner of the Elite Division will gain automatic entry to the 2015 World Cup. The runners-up will go into a repechage series with a team from South America and Europe.

It has been a long and bruising campaign for the Volcanoes. The fact that they have remained in the Elite Division at their first attempt is a remarkable achievement in itself. Although they are clearly a step below the top 3 teams (Japan, Hong Kong and Korea) they will have learnt valuable lessons from this campaign.

New gems uncovered 

The coaching staff has a good squad to work with. Some fine new talents were uncovered during the series with the likes of Hagan, Feeney and Aronson proving their worth. Now add this to last year’s young revelations, Howorth, Ward and Bellenie, and the future looks very bright indeed.

The leadership and guidance provided by perennial standouts Michael Letts, Chris Hitch, Matt Saunders and Gaz Holgate will ensure that the Volcanoes are here to stay with the best teams of Asian rugby.

In the other game played today, Korea easily accounted for Hong Kong.  The home team ran away with the game in the second half and will be pleased with their second consecutive runner-up finish in the A5N.

The focus for the Volcanoes will now switch to the 7s form of the game. After a short rest, the 7s players will return for camp at the beginning of June. Under the guidance of Coach Al Caravelli, they will prepare for the Rugby 7s World Cup to take place in Moscow, June 28-30.

Volcanoes erupt again

Tonight, however, the Volcanoes deserve to celebrate. Many have put their lives on hold for 6 weeks in order to win further honors for our country. Job security, financial strains, family difficulties and risk of injury proved to be no obstacles.

The players and staff continue to exceed all expectations. With a shoestring budget and a handful of employees the Philippine Rugby Union go about their work quietly. They are a shining example to the rest of the country of how to build success through discipline and humility.

The Volcanoes have erupted again. Their World Cup dream is well and truly alive. –