MANILA, Philippines - Treading rough waters in their first Elite Division appearance, the Philippine Volcanoes expect a rude baptism of fire when they battle top-seed Japan to kick off the Asian 5 Nations (A5N) rugby union competition before an expected sell-out crowd of 22,563 fans at the Level-5 Stadium in the Hakata ward of Fukuoka City this afternoon.
It took the Volcanoes five years to advance to the five-team Elite Division after topping the Fourth Division in 2008, Third in 2009, Second in 2010 and First last year. The Philippines has won 10 of its last 11 outings in the A5N with the only loss to South Korea, 34-20, in 2011. The A5N is an annual 15-a-side, full-contact competition held among five countries in different tiers or divisions. A rugby union match is played in two 40-minute halves.
To make it to the Elite Division, the No. 62-ranked Volcanoes trounced No. 43 Sri Lanka, 28-18, No. 56 Singapore, 37-20 and No. 58 Chinese-Taipei, 34-12, in the First Division last year. The promotion meant moving the Philippines up to No. 56 of 117 in the International Rugby Board ladder.
Philippine Rugby Football Union (PRFU) president Rick Santos described the Volcanoes as “one of the most successful teams in Asia.” Santos, who replaced Alvin San Diego at the PRFU helm last December, said, “Through their remarkable success, we hope to further promote the sport in the country and develop more players at the grassroots level, we’ve got hundreds of kids now playing in the country (and) we plan to bring it into the thousands.”
The Philippines is the newcomer in the Elite Division where the other entries are No. 14 Japan, No. 26 South Korea, No. 29 Hong Kong and No. 96 United Arab Emirates. After the Volcanoes play Japan, they meet Hong Kong at the Rizal Memorial Stadium on May 4, South Korea at the Ansan-Wa Stadium (capacity 35,000) in Ansan City on May 11 and the Emirates at the Rizal Memorial Stadium on May 18.
PRFU operations consultant and former rugby player Matt Cullen said the Volcanoes are up for a real test against Japan, unbeaten since the start of the A5N. “Our mindset is to win,” he said. “We’re going out there to play 100 percent and give it all we’ve got. We’ve got to match their intensity. We’ll start 100 percent and finish 100 percent because if we don’t, two things could happen – we’ll get beaten and we’ll get bruised. It’s a physical game and if we’re not playing aggressively, we could get hurt. The key is to make less mistakes than the other team. The game is all about ball retention. We’ve got to take care of our possessions and stay aggressive. We’ll only turn the ball over on mistakes.”
Cullen said the Volcanoes got together only last week when players from different parts of the world flew in. Last Monday, they crushed the Philippine A-Team, 51-0, in a practice match at the Nomads Field in Merville Park.
“In 2005, our team was made up of expats and players of Filipino heritage but since 2008, we’ve been 100 percent players of Filipino descent, mostly half-Filipinos living in New Zealand, Australia, UK and the US,” said Cullen. “Realistically, our goal in the A5N is just to stay in the Elite Division and we’ll do it by not finishing fifth. That means we’ll need to beat South Korea or the Emirates or both. This is a five-week competition so it’s good that we’re starting off against the No. 1 team Japan. We’ll use the experience to get better for the matches ahead.”
The Volcanoes are coached by Australian Jarred Hodges with Stuart Woodhouse as assistant, Phil Gittus manager and Christopher Bailey physiotherapist. The team left for Fukuoka yesterday morning on Philippine Airlines flight No. 426.
A 23-man roster was announced by the PRFU last Thursday. Heading the cast is skipper Michael Robrigado Letts whose brother Jake is also in the lineup. The other players are James Carandang Price, Patrice Ortiz Olivier, Matt Saunders, Joseph Bembo Matthews, Jaime Urquijo Zobel de Ayala, Austin Garnica Dacanay, Michael Estrada Duhig, Steve Pagtalunan Howorth, Matthew Orag Bellenie, Terrence Javier Carol, Chris Baltazar Hitch, Jake Ward, Gareth de la Rosa Holgate, Justin Villazor Coveney, David Robinson-Polkey, Graeme Hagan, Joshua Che Bautista, David Feeney, Darran Centillas Seeto, Alex Aronson and Jeff Blanco Gregson.
Missing from the team are Luke Matthews and Ben Saunders who will join the squad for the Hong Kong match in Manila. The Volcanoes usually play three sets of brothers – Joseph and Luke Matthews, Matt and Ben Saunders and Michael and Jake Letts.
If the Volcanoes finish fifth and last, they will be demoted to the First Division and lose the chance of playing in the Elite Division qualifiers for the Rugby World Cup in 2015. “We need to win at least one match during the A5N series to remain the Elite Division for 2014,” said Michael Letts. “The winner of the Elite Division in 2014 receives outright qualification to the Rugby World Cup in 2015.”