LGBTQ+ community

PH Volcanoes end historic run, look ahead

Jon Morales
The Philippine Volcanoes move on to Asia's top 5, show heart and hustle

FINALLY. Patrice Olivier and Joe Matthews share a celebratory hug. April 21, 2012. Adrian Portugal.

MANILA, Philippines – About 6 years since the first Philippine men’s national rugby team was formed — and 3 wins from 3 matches in a grueling week of rugby on short rest and in stifling heat later — the Philippine Volcanoes finish first place in the Asian 5 Nations First Division.  

The team defeated Sri Lanka 28-18 Saturday, April 21 proving it does not only have the talent it takes to be champions, but the heart as well.

Slow opener

Fly-half Oliver Saunders led the way yet again as he’s done all week, notching a game-leading 13 points from kicks to bring his tournament tally to a team-leading 39 points. 

As they’ve done in the previous 2 matches the home side came out of the gates white-hot as it took the Volcanoes only 2 minutes to get on the board after Sri Lanka conceded a penalty on their try line after a break by scrum-half James Price.  

Unlike the week’s previous matches that featured a large disparity between the quality of the teams, the promotion final had 2 sides that seemed evenly-matched and both sides opened the match conservatively, kicking often for position, as they probed each other out.  

TOP SCORER. Oliver Saunders contributed 13 points in the Volcanoes' win over Sri Lanka. April 21, 2012. Adrian Portugal.

The strategy played right into the Volcanoes hands though as it put the ball into the hands of their most dangerous players, the backs, and tired out the much larger, but much less fit Sri Lankan forwards. 

In a pattern that had held consistent throughout the week, Sri Lankan players began laying all over the park feigning injuries by the 5th minute of the match, in an effort to slow down the match and buy time for their forwards to catch their breath.  It was a cynical strategy that drew the ire of the fans, drawing widespread boos from the crowd as one Sri Lankan player after another laid down to hold up the progress of the match.

The strategy was not rewarded though and in the early going the kicking ability of the Volcanoes outshone their opposition counterparts and bought them deep attacking position to allow the Volcanoes to kick 3 penalties from Oli Saunders to jump out to a 9 point lead in the first twenty minutes, one a long penalty from 45 meters out.  

Volcanoes heat up

In the 29th minute the Philippine backs started to get going as an attacking drive from midfield saw quick hands from James Price, prop Richard Taylor in the line, and Matt Saunders breaking through before swinging it wide for captain Mike Letts to rumble over a Sri Lankan flanker after throwing the dummy pass to bring the score to 16 – 0 after the conversion.  

WINNING FORM. Joe Matthews scores a try in the Philippine Volcanoes' 28-18 win over Sri Lanka. April 21, 2012. Adrian Portugal.

With the Volcanoes hitting their stride and firing on all cylinders, Oli Saunders popped up once again after a broken play from a scrum and pierced the Sri Lankan line, making 40 meters before linking up with Joe Matthews on the wing who beat 3 defenders to score a try that was later converted.  

Some shaky decisions fielding kicks a few minutes before half-time forced the Philippines to concede 2 penalties, one of which was converted into points, to bring the Philippines into half-time in a dominant position leading 23-3.

Second half surge

Joe Matthews’ try was to be the last score the Volcanoes would see for nearly an entire half though as Sri Lanka surged in the second half and fought their way back into the game with punishing driving mauls that had given the light Volcano forward pack fits all week and turned what looked to be a laugher into a tense affair.  

The visitors would go on to score 18 unanswered points to put the crowd of 4,000 on edge.  

HUSTLE AND HEART. The Philippine Volcanoes showed hustle and heart in their succesful Asian 5 Nations Division I run. April 21, 2012. Adiran Portugal.

In the 48th minute Gayan Rathnayaka scored a push-over try from a well-orchestrated driving maul to open up Sri Lanka’s scoring in the second-half and begin the comeback.  A questionable yellow card on Joe Matthews for an offsides infringement in the 59th minute and an injury to starting 8-man Michael de Guzman, who had put in strong defensive work all week, further put the home side’s position into question as the Volcanoes went down to 14 men for 10 minutes.  

Sri Lanka scored after the yellow card with a bruising run from Sri Lankan flanker Sajith as he carried 2 Philippine defenders into the try zone with him.  A successful penalty conversion closed the gap to just 5 points, 18 – 23, and the home side looked to be crumbling as the ensuing kickoff was kicked directly out of bounds.

Home-field advantage

The crowd at Rizal Memorial Stadium would not let their boys falter though.  As Sri Lanka kicked what would be their final points for the match and a heart-breaking collapse looked imminent, a rousing Volcanoes chant greeted the team as they walked dejected back to the half-way line. 

The crowd’s efforts to lift the team seemed to work as the team redoubled their defensive efforts and drew a line in the sand, seeming to say enough was enough.  

Scrum half James Price, who started his only match of the tournament because of a severely injured ankle, flew around the pitch making key tackles and barging players nearly twice his size out into touch. Jake Ward, shifted from his favored flanker position to 8-man because of the injury to de Guzman, stepped into de Guzman’s defensive shoes and did impressive work at the breakdown and on the fringes to stop the bleeding.

FINAL TRY. Justin Coveney scored the Volcanoes' final try of the game to seal their win against Sri Lanka. April 21, 2012. Adrian Portugal.

In the 32nd minute the Philippines finally put the game to rest as Oli Saunders kicked one of his trademark cross-field chips right on the dot into the path of a steamrolling Justin Coveney who used his momentum and power to break three tackles and kill the comeback.

The crowd began its celebrations early as the Volcanoes completed a historic run into the top 5.

The Volcanoes feature 3 sets of brothers in the squad, all of whom play in the backs. Over the week, the team scored 99 points with 79 of those points coming from one of the 6 brothers on the team. The Saunders brothers, Oliver as fly-half and Matt outside as center/wing scored 44 points, the Matthews brothers Joe and Luke on wing put in 25, while the Letts brothers, team captain and fullback Mike, and Jake as scrum half had 10.

Historic run

Next year, the Philippines will face the biggest test to their team structure, ability, and organizational capacity as they enter the top 5 for the first time and contend against teams such as Asian powerhouse, Japan. 

The Top 5 competition will see the Volcanoes playing home and away matches against the other 4 contenders over the course of 2 months, rather than the single week competition of the divisional levels, which will test the depth of their mostly amateur player pool who have to take leave from work for extended stretches to participate in these competitions.

Promotion to the Top 5 means the Philippines are in contention for qualification to the 2015 Rugby World Cup in London. While the dream of a World Cup berth may seem like a long-shot, the team has proven that they will far outstrip expectations regularly, winning promotion every year but one and having won every match they have played since 2008 except for one. 

CELEBRATION. The Philippine Volcanoes celebrate their win while captain Michael Letts hoists the trophy. April 21, 2012. Adrian Portugal.

Entering the tournament ranked 72nd in the world with a provisional ranking, the Philippines won the tournament convincingly against 3 teams all ranked far above them, with the defeated Sri Lanka entering the tournament ranked 46th, and should see their ranking skyrocket when the new rankings are released this week.

Sri Lanka will face another year in the divisional wilderness before they can attempt to rejoin the Top 5 of the competition.  They will desperately want to avoid the fate of Singapore this year, who were the first top 5 team to ever drop to division 2 after losing to Chinese Taipei 49-31 in the relegation bowl.

The team took their victory lap around stadium carrying the division 1 trophy and, fittingly, began their grandstand leg in front of the original 2006 Test team before lifting the plate to the rest of the hometown crowd. (Watch players’ reactions here).

The first Volcanoes captain, Romain Barberis, along with many of the first Test team from 2006, was in attendance at the match to watch this year’s Volcanoes complete the journey they began 6 years ago. 

“I captained 6 of the players on that squad, the Letts brothers, the Saunders, Mykhal Duhig, and Lolo [Austin Dacanay]. We always dreamt of this day that we would make it on the big stage and now that it’s here it’s unbelievable,” Barberis said after the match. “Those players were just boys then and now they’re men and they’re champions.” – Rappler.com

Relatted stories: