MANILA, Philippines – The men’s Philippine rugby team began its Asian 5 Nations Division 1 promotion campaign on Sunday night, April 15 at Rizal Memorial Stadium. And what a start it was.
With the Webb Ellis Cup on the sidelines to focus both sides eyes on the dream of Rugby World Cup qualification, the Philippines took the first step on that long road by convincingly defeating regional rivals Singapore 37 – 20.
As the teams lined up on the touchline to sing their national anthems, a casual glance at the two sides quickly revealed the tactical battle that would later unfold. Singapore — featuring two second rowers topping 6 feet with room to spare and a large forward pack — would look to play direct and narrow.
For the Philippines, showing attacking flair through the midfield and wide play with physical, fit, and pacey backs has become the team’s trademark.
Fast off the mark
The Volcanoes wasted no time coming out of the gates as they sent the visitors reeling in the opening minutes.
Winger Matt Saunders and his older brother, fly half Oliver Saunders, connected on a clever kick behind the wing they made look as easy as if they were still playing in their back yard. The younger Saunders brother collected the ball at full pace and raced into the try zone to score the Philippines’ first try of the tournament less than 5 minutes into the action.
It took only another 5 minutes before the Volcanoes got reacquainted with the try zone.
Foreshadowing his brilliant all-around performance for the day, Vice Captain Chris Hitch stole a lineout ball inside Philippine territory and made a 20-meter solo break, throwing the Singaporean defensive lines into chaos. Once again, the Philippine backs showed how dangerous they could be as they swung the ball quickly through the hands of the backline in a flowing move that finished with Joe Matthews gassing his marker and scoring in the opposite corner for the first Philippines try.
With the Volcanoes dominating possession, territory, and the scoreboard, and the Singaporean defensive lines being outflanked, Singapore desperately sought to stop the bleeding and regroup, doing everything they could to slow the ball down at rucks and using tactical kicking to pin the Volcanoes deep in their own territory.
Despite constantly conceding penalties at rucks, the strategy seemed to be working for the visitors as they were finally able to get on the board in the seventeenth minute with a successful penalty conversion from Suhaimi Amran.
The Volcanoes broke out of their mini scoring ‘drought’ though in the 22nd minute, as a mishit Singaporean penalty failed to find touch. Matt Saunders fielded the ball inches from the touchline and shed three tacklers to advance the ball inside the visitors’ 22-meter line.
Once again the Philippines put their high-tempo attack on display as two crash balls in the forwards were quickly followed by another flowing backs move that put outside center Patrice Olivier over the try line to extend the lead 17-3.
A 60-meter solo try by Oliver Saunders from a Singaporean turnover and a long Singaporean penalty conversion rounded off the first half to leave the score 24-3 entering the break.
After an entire half of one-way traffic the Singaporeans looked dead in the water with no answers for the difficult questions being posed by the Volcanoes backs and the up-tempo Philippine attack.
Going into the second half, there were few positives for the visitors to dwell on except for their performance at kickoffs and in the few driving mauls they were able to set up from lineout ball.
No laying down
The international experience of Singapore’s coaching staff was evident though as the visitors made half-time adjustments to create a much more even second-half.
Having spotted the difficulty the home team was having defending against the larger Singaporean pack’s driving mauls, the visitors changed strategies and began kicking to the corners to try to win lineouts close to the try-line, almost entirely forsaking running in the center third of the pitch.
The strategy shift paid immediate dividends as the Singaporean prop Riady Perdana scored on a push-over try from a lineout driving maul less than 3 minutes into the second half to narrow the score to 24 – 13 after a successful conversion.
The Singaporean backs, however, simply could not match the quality of a Volcanoes’ back line featuring five players on professional contracts and were completely outclassed.
After Joe Matthews notched his second try of the game on the wing, Singapore scored another converted push-over try by 8-man Peter McFeely from a driving maul with less than 10 minutes to play. The home side responded immediately though as Joe Matthews fed inside to long-time team captain Michael Letts before going through the advertising boards on the sideline 10 meters from the try zone.
The Singaporean fullback bravely attempted a try-line tackle on the Volcanoes’ captain, but, in a neat summation of the game, was easily bowled over by the captain’s pace and power for the try that put the game to the sword.
After cruising to victory against higher-ranked and higher-seeded Singapore in their opening match the Volcanoes have made a firm opening statement in their promotion campaign.
Sri Lanka, the tournament favorites who easily defeated Chinese Taipei 36 – 8 in earlier action, will have taken notice and look to prepare for a dangerous Philippine back line. But they must first get past a proud and well-coached Singapore on Wednesday.
The Volcanoes on the other hand should look to tighten up their execution on kickoffs, a rare facet of the game where the Philippines performed poorly from start to finish.
While they will not face a pack as large as the Singaporean forwards for the rest of the tournament, the Philippines will also want to improve their defense of driving mauls and cut down on penalties. The Philippines conceded almost twice as many penalties as their opponents, an issue they will want to address before their next match against Chinese Taipei.
Teams will re-enter action on Wednesday, April 18 after a brief two-day rest. Sri Lanka will face Singapore in the first game at 5 pm, and the Philippines will try to continue its success against newly-promoted Chinese Taipei at 7 pm.
See more game photos here. – Rappler.com