Burning Questions for a Philippine Volcano

Natashya Gutierrez

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MANILA, Philippines — Meet Jon Morales, who chatted with us about life and rugby in the Philippines, his teammates, and their sexy Bench underwear billboards that were taken down for being “inappropriate.”

Born and raised in Boston, MA, the 27-year-old Filipino American member of the Philippine National Team, the Philippine Volcanoes, started playing rugby when he was only 13 years old. 

Morales came to the Philippines in 2009 for a job and initially planned to stay for “a year,” until he got caught up in the local rugby scene. Two years later, he plays fly-half for the Philippine Volcanoes, and is team captain of the Nomads Club Team and the National Development Team, the national second team reserved only for locally-based players. 

Aside from his stint on the field, Morales, who graduated from Brown University in 2005, works a full-time job at a non-government organization that focuses on economic reform and development.

While Morales was not selected to join the Volcanoes at the HSBC Borneo Rugby Sevens Tournament in Kota Kinabalu later this month, he is enthusiastic, because he says this is a sign that the team is moving towards the next level. The competitiveness for a spot represents a deeper selection pool of players from around the world with Filipino blood, who are putting their hands up, wanting to play for the Philippine Volcanoes.

Move.PH caught up with the self-described “living, doing, thinking” athlete last Sept. 11, 2011. Below are excerpts from the interview:

How do you like Manila?

I love it. I know it’s not the most scenic city in the world and there are a lot of things broken about Manila, very broken and very chaotic, but I think for my personality that chaos appeals to me. It feels like every time I walk out my door, either something amazing or something awful is going to happen. And while it’s Manila and six times out of ten it’s going to be awful, it’s just the potential of something out of the ordinary happening. It feels very real to me here every day.

Describe your teammates, the Philippine Volcanoes.

Most of the boys are from Sydney. Generally we only see each other basically 3 to 4 weeks out of the year—we just get together right before a competition, train every day together, then go off into the competition. So you’d think it would actually be fairly hard to gel a team like that but the dynamic of the team is I think, really quite amazing. Even when the new guys come in, the players that you’re technically competing with for spots and selections are really helpful. Everybody just wants the team to do well; individual glory does not really play into it. They think, ‘If I go down, I want my replacement to do well, to be able to fill my shoes as well.’ The team gets really, really close over the course of those camps. It sounds really corny but we feel like brothers, we feel like family.

What are your team’s goals?

Short-term, in 2 weeks in Borneo, we want to finish fifth or better. That’ll give us a spot in Hong Kong sevens which is the top sevens tournament in the world. That’s been a dream of the sevens program here for a long time and it would really validate our position in Asian rugby, sevens anyway. Our sevens program has been up and down in the past couple of years, struggled in international competitions—the fifteens programs has been massively successful in the past five years since its inception basically—but in sevens we’ve struggled. In fifteens we want to win the [Asian 5 Nations Division 1 or A5N Div1] tournament and move into the top five in Asian rugby because that will give us a shot at qualifying in the next World Cup… who knows? Once you’re in that tier, anything can happen.

Long term for the Volcanoes, for the fifteens program especially, Japan is the class of Asia. They haven’t lost since the inception of the A5N Div1 tournament in 2008…we want to get to the stage eventually, in five or ten years, to be able to really challenge Japan.

What are your thoughts on the invasion by foreign talent of our national sports teams?

There’s a bit of the idea that these are foreigners essentially coming in, they didn’t grow up here, they’re half something else, but I think for the Philippines that’s the reality these days. We’ve had so much emigration, so much OFWs that the Filipino has now gone global. And we want to be able to draw those people back for whatever reason. For these boys, its rugby, and for other things, we want more of these people coming home. These people will help push the country into the next level just like what they’re doing for rugby. It’s kind of like a reverse brain drain. The skills in rugby that these guys acquired across seas, they’re coming back and transmitting it back to the Philippine people and I think that’s great, that’s a really, really good thing.

What can you say about the controversial Bench billboards?

We’re glad that Bench helped us out and that they’ve given us the exposure. They really brought us to the forefront of Filipinos’ consciousness and made people pay attention. The issues of whether it’s up for ten days or MMDA this or public morality this and that… To us it went up, it came down, and everyone suddenly knew we had a rugby team. And that’s really what we care about. We want people to care. At the end of the day, we want people cheering for us.

Follow the reporter on Twitter: @natashya_g

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Natashya Gutierrez

Natashya is President of Rappler. Among the pioneers of Rappler, she is an award-winning multimedia journalist and was also former editor-in-chief of Vice News Asia-Pacific. Gutierrez was named one of the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders for 2023.