PH Volcanoes on the cusp of Asia’s top 5, World Cup qualifiers

Jon Morales
The Philippine men's rugby team is just one win away from being promoted to top 5, will face Sri Lanka on Saturday

MANILA, Philippines – The Philippine men’s rugby team continued its Asian 5 Nations Division I tournament run Wednesday night, April 18 at Rizal Memorial Stadium, soundly beating bottom-seeded Chinese Taipei 34-12 in an up and down performance by the home team for a 2nd straight win to put them on the cusp of promotion to Top 5. 

The promotion will also mean a chance to win a spot in the 2015 Rugby World Cup to be held in England.

Though the gaudy final result suggests a one-sided affair, the match was far from it, especially in a touch and go first half that saw the Philippines desperately defending on its own try line for much of the early going.

After a clinical performance over higher-seeded Singapore on Sunday night, April 15, the Volcanoes may have felt they could relax against a team they expected to get past easily in their 2nd match of the tournament.  

The Philippine coaching staff chose to rest stars Fil-French outside center Patrice Olivier and openside flanker Christopher Hitch, who watched from the stands.  

Early jitters

Early on, it seemed an unexpectedly feisty Chinese Taipei would sting the home side for their complacency as the visitors dominated possession and position, forcing the Volcanoes on their back foot and starving the fearsome attacking Philippine backline of ball. 

The opening stanza saw the underdogs camped deep in attacking territory and pressuring the Philippine defense into a desperate goal-line stand.  The visitors looked intent on keeping play out of the midfield and wide areas and testing the Philippine defense at the fringes of the ruck. 

For most of the first 20 minutes, the visitors banged away at the Volcanoes’ fringes from less than a meter out to no avail as the Philippine forwards held firm time after time, making tackle after tackle on the goal-line.  

After the home side relieved pressure by winning a penalty, they almost immediately found themselves with their backs against the wall again as an aggressive visiting side won another penalty and again eschewed kicking for points and opted to kick to touch to have another attempt at bulling their way through the Philippine defense. 

Once more, the Philippine line held firm and turned them away. 

In the 14th minute, Philippine 2nd rower Steve Howorth received a yellow card for hitting a man in the air, reducing the home side to 14 men.

With the Volcanoes looking shaky in set pieces, playing a man down, and the backline unable to find any consistent form, they were looking vulnerable until 2 quick, long tries from Man of the Match winger Luke Matthews,  to match his older brother’s Sunday double, put the Philippines in the lead. 

Inside center Justin Coveney added another to the tally after 2 missed Chinese Taipei penalty conversions to close out the half 19-0.

Same but different

In the 2nd half, Chinese Taipei, like Singapore before them, switched strategies to try to find a way through the stiff Philippine defense. 

The visitors continued to dominate possession and field position but the quick strike ability and individual ability of the Philippines won the day as they ran away with the game despite living off of scraps of possession.  

Outside center Matt Saunders looked dangerous all day with hard attacking runs and one try saving interception in the 1st half but was bleeding profusely from a bandaged head wound sustained earlier in the game and was substituted early in the 2nd half. 

Brian West, who made his debut on Sunday, immediately made his presence felt by making a try-saving tackle after a rare break wide by the visiting team.  Fly half Oly Saunders scored 20 minutes into the 2nd half and with that score, the plucky underdogs, recently promoted Chinese Taipei, were done and dusted. 

West added one more try to mark his first-ever international try after a raft of substitutions by the home side with the game put to rest. 

After the game, he said “it was an honor to score my first try here in the Philippines.  I’m just speechless.”   

Chinese Taipei scored 2 tries in garbage time by Chen I Jen and flanker Chuang Ming Che to bring the final match score to 34-12.

All left to play for

The Philippines will now look forward to their final tournament showdown with Sri Lanka on Saturday, April 21 which will be broadcast live internationally on ESPN Asia and locally on Studio 23. 

Starting tighthead prop Richard Taylor said, “there’s plenty we need to do if we want to win Saturday against Sri Lanka.  Even though we won this match we didn’t show the execution and the consistency that we’ll need if we want to get past them and into the Top 5.”  

The Volcanoes can congratulate themselves on a job well done but will need to improve on team structure and rely less on individual brilliance when they face their stiffest test on Saturday with all left to play for in the match most predicted before the tournament would be the decider. 

Chinese Taipei will also go into Saturday with a do-or-die match as they face Singapore in the tournament relegation bowl, with both teams fighting to stay in Division 1 after disappointing campaigns that saw them both start with 2 losses, despite stretches of promising play.

The Philippines faces Sri Lanka at Rizal Memorial Stadium on Saturday at 5 pm. Chinese Taipei faces Singapore in the relegation decider in the 2nd match at 7 pm on Saturday.

For more photos of the match, click here. – Rappler.com

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