Rooting for rugby: Why a band of brothers is passionate about the sport

Francis Villavicencio - Philstar.com
Rooting for rugby: Why a band of brothers is passionate about the sport
Another sport where Filipinos hold much promise to excel and bring international recognition is rugby.

Filipino athletes have been making global headlines in the past few years with achievements in various fields of sports seldom heard of in the country before, such as Hidilyn Diaz’s Olympic weightlifting victory, EJ Obiena’s winning streaks in pole vault and Alex Eala’s most recent victory at the US Open junior girls’ singles tennis championship.

Another such sport where Filipinos hold much promise to excel and bring international recognition is rugby, according to three young Filipino-American brothers who have dedicated almost their entire lives thus far to the sport and to propagating it in the Philippines.

Ryan, Reed and Rand Santos had been exposed to the sport very early on thanks to their father, Rick, who founded the Makati Mavericks Sports Foundation along with other rugby enthusiasts and like-minded parents at the International School Manila (ISM), such as AJ and Wiremu O’Regan-Brown and school superintendent Bill Brown.

Barely into their teens, the brothers began involvement in the organization, which has turned out to be one of the most active and important rugby organizations in the country today, fielding and training local grassroots talent who mostly end up in the national team, the Volcanoes.

A number of alumni have even reached the global arena, such as Marcus Smith of the England national rugby team and Lito Ramirez, who started playing rugby with the Mavericks as part of the foundation’s outreach program of keeping orphans off the streets. Ramirez has even gone on to play for the national team at the Olympic qualifiers.

Ryan Santos is only the second student of Filipino heritage at Harvard University to helm its rugby team.

School and sports

Athleticism in general runs deep in the Santos family, mostly thanks to exposure at school. Rick’s father, Dr. Rolando Arquiza Santos, was a Fulbright scholar and a respected Chavacano linguist who ran track at Ateneo de Zamboanga.

Rick himself played football and rugby at the University of California–Berkeley, where he met his college sweetheart and eventual wife, Bonnie. Her father, William George Beagle, was an all-Ivy quarterback and baseball star at Dartmouth College. Even Rick’s brother, Rob, excelled at football and rugby while at Harvard University.

The kids are clearly on the same path of excelling in both academics and sports. Twenty-two-year-old Ryan is currently on his final year studying history and economics in Harvard University and is captain of the Harvard rugby team. He is only the second student of Filipino heritage to take on the role, next to Jaime Alfonso Zobel de Ayala, the son of Ayala Corporation Chairman Jaime Augusto Zobel de Ayala.

“Throughout my life, sports have always had a strong influence on me,” says Ryan. Being the eldest, he considers himself a “third-culture kid” with a unique identity and diverse background, having spent his early childhood in Hong Kong, then growing up in Manila and spending vacations in California.

Twenty-one-old Reed is on his sophomore year at the prestigious business school Babson College and is likewise captain of its rugby team. He seems to be one to take after his father’s entrepreneurial drive, winning a business idea competition in high school at ISM with a co-working space concept he developed. He also led the championship at the Interscholastic Association of Southeast Asian Schools (IASAS) rugby competition in 2017.

Nineteen-year-old Rand has just finished high school at ISM as well and has been admitted to his father’s alma mater this year. During his sophomore year in high school, he captained the team that won at the Interscholastic Association of Southeast Asian Schools (IASAS)

championship. Despite difficulties during the COVID-19 pandemic, Rand continued to play rugby and even managed to compete in South Africa.

Reed and Rand Santos agree that in the Philippines, a grassroots approach to promoting and strengthening rugby is essential.

World-class Filipino talent

At one point or another in their academic lives, all three boys had been selected to play in prestigious rugby camps and Men’s Collegiate All-American national teams. Ryan has just returned from Amsterdam after playing the Corendon Summer Rugby Tour with the USA Under 23 (U23) National Team, along with Rand who was captain of the Under 18 (U18) Team that beat the Netherlands, Belgium and Canada. Reed, meanwhile, most recently participated in the 2021 Men’s Winter Camp as part of the U23 Team.

This exposure to the global rugby arena has honed the brothers’ talent on a world-class scale and provided them opportunities to proudly represent their Filipino heritage. Most importantly, it has also only affirmed their belief that Filipinos have immense potential to make it in international rugby.

“I think Filipinos encapsulate many values that make us collectively ripe for success in rugby—we are tough, resilient, resourceful and persevering. Many skills that Filipinos excel at in basketball, soccer or boxing can also be utilized in rugby,” says Ryan.

For Reed, rugby is an inclusive sport: “No matter your size, shape or speed, anyone has the ability to play. It’s able to integrate people from different backgrounds and classes. There’s no barriers to entry—anyone with any physical capabilities can go and play and be successful.”

Rand agrees and cites once more the success story of Lito, who now gives back through mentoring a new generation of Mavericks boys and girls. Lito has also found a successful corporate career working for Rick’s firm Santos Knight Frank. “Seeing all these young kids come in, it’s amazing how much they’re growing. It’s a blessing to share my knowledge to them and to learn from them as well,” says Rand.

Structure and support

One of the biggest achievements of Filipinos in international rugby thus far is the Volcanoes qualifying for the Rugby World Cup Sevens in 2013. However, the Santos brothers know a lot still has to be done to elevate rugby both locally and internationally. For instance, full-format rugby union, comprised of 15 players per team, was played at the Olympics in the early 20th century but only the sevens format has been played in recent years. Rugby has also been absent at the 2021 and will not be played at the 2023 SEA Games.

All three brothers agree that in the Philippines, a grassroots approach to promoting and strengthening rugby is essential. This is the strategy that the Makati Mavericks Sports Foundation has been undertaking. “Spreading it across schools, having them create their own teams and doing more marketing will be the biggest factors,” shares Reed.

For Ryan, “a dedicated program to developing ‘crossover’ athletes from other sports would be beneficial to growing the game in the Philippines. The country is ripe with world-class athletes including world champions in track and field, boxing and weightlifting.” He says a similar concept has been rolled out in the United States and has seen much success with former football players now representing the country in rugby sevens.

One thing is for sure in that the end goal for the Santos brothers is to see Filipino players excel in the global rugby scene. “I hope to see the Philippines competing at the highest echelons of international rugby, in future World Cups and Olympic games,” enthuses Ryan. “We brothers feel rugby truly has the power for individuals to realize their potential and this is an exciting prospect for a country of 110 million people.”

Indeed, with such dedication, commitment, and passion from this unlikely but inspired team of brothers, that vision may no longer be too far in the future.

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