MANILA, Philippines – After showing flashes of promise in their debut match against Canada at the world’s premier sevens rugby event, the Hong Kong Sevens, the men’s Philippine rugby team went into the second day looking to pull off upsets against pool E opponents Spain and Zimbabwe.
The Philippines Volcanoes opened their second day of the tournament against 2011 Shield Finalists Spain, who had defeated Zimbabwe in their first match on Friday.
The Volcanoes held steady in the first half and entered the break down by only a single converted try at 7-0. The Philippines put a scare in the Spanish team as they drew close, 7-5, after an unconverted try by French-Filipino Patrice Olivier.
It was not to be however as Spain scored two unanswered tries in the 2nd half to pull away and finish the match 21 – 5.
With one last chance to mark their debut campaign with a pool victory, the Volcanoes lined up against 2010 Bowl Finalists Zimbabwe for the afternoon match.
The Cheetahs, as the Zimbabwe national team is known, had shocked Canada in the morning, leaving the pool race for a qualifying spot wide open as the top three teams in the pool, shared a victory a piece.
For its part, the Philippines still had an outside shot at sneaking into qualifying places for the knockout stages of the tournament and the desire to play spoiler to a more established rugby nation.
The fire was apparent from the start of the match as the Volcanoes stunned and delighted the crowd by stinging the favorites for two unanswered opening tries.
Michael Letts, the older of the two Letts brothers, stepped his man inside on a wide move and broke the line gaining 30 meters before offloading to a supporting Matt Saunders flying through the center of the pitch.
After the ensuing long kickoff the Philippines swarming defensive pressure pushed the Cheetahs back to their own goal line and forced a poor pass from the Zimbabwean playmaker Manasah Sita to the wing as they tried to run out from the shadow of their own goal posts.
Justin Coveney easily collected the bouncing ball on the wing before fighting through an attempted tackle and diving in on the left side of the try zone.
The ensuing conversion was missed but the Philippines still looked in commanding position with a 12 – 0 lead.
The Cheetahs pace and experience were expected to pose a problem though and such an experienced side would not lay down after the surprise of falling behind the underdog debutants.
Zimbabwean playmaker Sita quickly earned his redemption as he stepped two Philippine defenders and turned on the gas to outpace the Philippine defense for an 80 meter galloping try score to narrow the halftime score to 12 – 7 in favor of the Philippines.
In the second half, the Cheetahs received the kickoff and quickly swung back to the short side of the pitch, disorganizing the Philippine defense before breaking wide to the open side.
A promising move by the Zimbabweans was cut short and the Philippine defense saved by an obstruction penalty as the Cheetah attacker ran behind his own player.
Through most of the second half the score remained 12 –7 with the Volcanoes looking very structured and secure in possession, running the ball out in a direct fashion to each 15-meter channel back and forth across the field, looking to aggressively make ground and push back the opposition defense.
The Cheetahs big play potential reared its head again though, as playmaker Sita poppped up with a handy offload in contact to spring Nechirongo through the middle of a broken defensive line with enough space to make magic with his feet, shedding two tacklers in the center of the pitch before bouncing outside and then scoring underneath the posts.
With the conversion putting the Cheetahs ahead by a slim margin of two points and less than two minutes left before the horn, things looked grim for the boys in blue.
The Volcanoes dug deep and remained calm in the face of the comeback and went on the attack again.
Philippine playmaker Oli Saunders, older brother of Matt Saunders, snuck a clever grubber kick behind the Cheetah line for Olivier to chase.
His effort was rewarded as the Zimbabwean sweeper mishandled the ball into his own try zone leading to a 5-meter scrum for the Philippines with time winding down.
Strong scrummaging from the Philippine forwards and aggressive running near the line led to a penalty which was quickly swung wide by the elder Saunders for a dramatic late-game try by Olivier in the corner with less than 30 seconds left on the clock.
For a moment it looked like the Philippines would score an enormous upset in their debut campaign.
Such glory wasn’t to be as the referee signaled a restart would occur after the missed conversion attempt and the proud and experienced Zimbabwean side reached into their bag of tricks and turned once again to Sita to save them.
Sita took the 60 meters out and stopped desperate, diving defenders on the final play of the game to score under the post and finish the game 21 – 17, narrowly avoiding the upset the Volcanoes were seeking.
In the end the Cheetahs big play potential and the quality of Zimbabwean star Sita after his first mistake proved too much for the Volcanoes to overcome.
Much to be proud of
The Volcanoes can leave the tournament with their heads held high however, having scored tries in every single one of their matches against teams with much longer histories in the tournament and having put on some brilliant passages of play.
Canada upset the Volcanoes 35-5 on Friday, March 23 in their tournament opener. The Philippines also lost to Uruguay 22-5 on Sunday, March 25 in the knockout stages, where Olivier scored the Volcanoes’ sole try.
While they exit without a victory, the Volcanoes proved worthy opponents in their debut campaign at the Hong Kong Sevens.
Having had victories within sight this year only to slip away, the team will be hungry to return through a strong Asian Sevens Series campaign later this year in Shanghai, Borneo, Bangkok, and Singapore. – Rappler.com