To say that it’s not the winning that counts, but the taking part must be the most overly used cliché in sport. However, at the Rugby 7’s World Cup, for one nation in particular, it was certainly true.
For in amongst the usual suspects of England, New Zealand, Australia and Samoa stood a mere infant in rugby comparisons. The Philippines.
In a country where there is a heavily American influence throughout politics, transport and culture, their sporting participation has traditionally followed along those lines – Basketball and Boxing being the most popular.
But unlike Boxing, where Manny Pacquiao has taken the world by storm, the chances of producing a world class athlete in Basketball was always going to be long shot given the traditional physical size of your average Filipino male. And so, a life of sporting anonymity looked likely for this proud nation.
Rugby in The Philippines took up its mantra courtesy of a group of Rugby loving expats and bankers who all lived and worked in Manila. Joining together at the Manila Nomads Sports Club, the first ever Manila Nomads Rugby Club was born. Whilst many locals looked on in bemusement at the notion of rugby, the team would meet once a year for a tour to other Asian countries in order to test themselves competitively.
It wasn’t until 1989 though, that Rugby was first competitively played on Philippine soil, with the creation of the Manila 10’s tournament – a tournament created as much to prevent the Manila based Nomads having to travel so far for games.
Though not a recognised format here in Britain, 10’s is a very popular format of the game in Asia, and as such bought fierce competition from all over the continent, eventually developing into a globally attended tournament, with teams form Australia, USA and England taking part.
Eventually, the game began to grow – but it was not an easy progress, particularly outside of the expat community. Indeed, even today, of the 12 registered rugby clubs, only one – the Cebu Dragons – play outside of Manila, and they were only formed in 2005 – again, thanks to Aussies and Brits looking to play the game they loved, albeit in the 10’s version.
As the awareness of the game grew, so too did the numbers of participants, and a national 15’s challenge series began amongst the Filipino clubs. What they lacked in power and physicality amongst the forwards, they more than made up for with speed, agility and guile in the back divisions.
Eventually, a heavily expat laden international team came to the fore, and played their first ever match under The Philippines banner in May 2006, overcoming Asian rivals Guam 18 points to 14. However, with a team made up of many different nationalities, all qualifying through residency, many Filipinos found it difficult to associate themselves to rugby, and their success was largely ignored by the media.
In 2007, The Philippines entered the South East Asia games with an experimental side made up entirely of Filipino’s. The success of the local lads in reaching the final of the tournament, only loosing to hosts Thailand in the final, sparked the catalyst of interest and a noticeable increase in numbers started to attend training sessions at clubs.
It was after this tournament, and with the publics interest gained, that The Volcanoes, as they became known, began to broaden their recruitment policy.
Recognising that the infrastructure of Grass Root sport was almost non existent, but at the same understanding that success of the national team would be key in generating further interest in the sport, they began a new recruitment strategy. Using the high number of migrant Filipino workers in Rugby strongholds such as Britain, Australia and South Africa they looked to make contact with those young players, who played at a good standard, all of whom had a Filipino parent – offering an early opportunity to play representative rugby. This way, they were able to combine good rugby knowledge and the national identity the Philippine people so craved.
With the new breed of player linking up with the squad, 2008 saw The Philippines enter the Asian 5 Nations Competition – starting at Division 4 – and having defeated Brunei 110-0, took the title in their inaugural season.
A repeat in the 3rd Division of Asian international competition in 2009 preceded success again in the 2010 and promotion to division one was complete – unprecedented successive promotions from Division 4 to Division 1, the second tier of the Asian structure, and an opportunity to win the right to mix it with the big boys of Asian Rugby.
Whilst the success story was not to carry on for a 4th successive promotion, in 2012 The Philippines went undefeated on their way to claiming a place at the top table, earning the right to compete against Japan, Hong Kong, South Korea and UAE for that illustrious World Cup 2015 Spot.
Things were not to go their way, and despite an opening day 121-0 defeat to the might of Japan, gallant defeats to Korea and Hong Kong saw The Philippines only retain their top flight status thanks to a final day 24-8 victory against UAE. Whilst the Filipino pack may well have been overpowered and out muscled by their larger counterparts, there were several eye-catching performances form the backs on the rare occasions they were given an attacking platform.
As mentioned before, whilst the Filipino forwards cannot be accused of lacking heart, determination or will, this just showed that physically they were unable to compete on the world stage. With a lack of big, lumbering second rows or big hitting blindsides, it was inevitable that the fast paced, nimble footed backs would find Rugby Sevens as much more of an arena to flourish in.
Making their debut in 7’s back in 2007 in the aforementioned South East Asian Games in Thailand, their record has almost mirrored that of the full 15’s team – record wins against Brunei and record defeat against Japan.
What has not only mirrored their counterparts, but exceeded them is the recognition on the World Stage. Through competing at the 2012 Hong Kong Sevens, this culminated in reaching the 2013 World Cup, staged at the weekend in Moscow. All of the squad have at some point played in the 15’s side, and many of which were bought into the fold from an early age back in 2007 under the parentage recruitment drive.
It is fairly apt then, that 6 minutes into their first game against Kenya, one of these players – Gaz Holgate – scored their first try. Recruited as an Under19, Holgate is Welsh Born with a Filipino mother, who has a playing history including UWIC; he has played in 9 of the 12 A5N matches the Philippines have played, scoring 30 points in the process.
Despite their eventual 45-5 loss to the Kenyans, and ensuing defeats against Samoa (29-0) Zimbabwe (19-7) and Japan (50-0) The Philippines captured not only the hearts and minds of their countrymen, but also the respect of their opponents.
Despite the setbacks, 6 years from first game to World Cup is a meteoric rise, and with the likes of Holgate, Michael Letts and Oliver Saunders proving to be marketable assets in The Philippines, participation numbers in rugby are expected to continue to grow. So don’t be too surprised if in another 6 years time, we are not talking about the Philippines not only taking part at the World Cups, but taking them by storm.
image: © trishhh