Sri Lanka and Philippines remain unbeaten
Sri Lanka and the Philippines set up a showdown for promotion to the HSBC Asian 5 Nations Top 5 competition in 2013 after winning their second round matches at the Rizal Memorial Stadium in Manila on Wednesday.
Division 1 top seeds Sri Lanka and the Philippines, the third seeds, will come face to face on Saturday with the winner to join the likes of Japan, Hong Kong and Kazakhstan in the elite tier next year.
While unbeaten Sri Lanka and the Philippines are targeting promotion, for Singapore and Chinese Taipei the battle is to avoid relegation to Division II and the end of their involvement in the region’s qualifying process for Rugby World Cup 2015.
The Philippines Volcanoes are one of the most improved nations in Asia over recent years in their climb up the A5N pyramid, and the 34-12 win over Chinese Taipei was a family affair with three sets of brothers in the starting line-up.
Wing Luke Matthews scored two first half tries to help the Philippines pull away from a spirited Chinese Taipei outfit, a brace of tries matching the effort of his brother Joe in the 37-20 win over Singapore on Sunday.
A younger Matthews brother, Daniel, has already played for the Philippines at Under 20 level and could join his brothers in the future, with Michael and Jake Letts – captains of the 15-a-side and Sevens teams respectively – and Oliver and Matthew Saunders the other brothers.
“I’m so proud of Joe,” admitted Luke Matthews, when quizzed about sibling rivalry. “He played great on Sunday and had another great game tonight. It really is incredible to be able to run out on to the pitch alongside him and represent both our country and our family.”
The Philippines are not the only team in the tournament with family connections, as Sri Lanka captain Yoshitha Rajapaksa and hooker Namal Rajapaksa are the sons of the country’s president Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Yoshitha is a veteran of Sri Lanka’s time in the Top 5 last year and is a steadying hand for a young and hungry group of players who are now two matches unbeaten under coach Phil Greening after the 35-10 win over Singapore, another side to have tasted Top 5 rugby.
Nothing decided yet
While the Philippines scored five tries to lead 34-0 before Chinese Taipei finally breached their line through Chuang Ming Che and Chen I Jen, Sri Lanka had a much tougher first half against Singapore and led by only four points at half time.
Wing Sandun Herath scored both Sri Lanka’s tries in the first half, but it took three second half tries finally killed off the Singapore resistance and leave them locked on 12 points with Philippines going into the final match day.
Greening, the former England hooker, is expecting a tough challenge from the Philippines and knows that while his team are the top seeds and pre-tournament title favourites, they aren’t there yet.
“I’m proud of the guys, especially the way they fronted up today. We knew how Singapore would play and we put a plan in place to nullify that effort and the guys responded well. But we’ve won nothing so far and I will remind the team of that.
“The Philippines in my eyes are the top team so far. They are the team to beat, there is no doubt about that. There are quite a few players in the Philippines team playing professionally now in Japan or at high level in Australia while seven out of our 22 players earned new caps either today or last Sunday. We have five 19 year olds in the squad also, so I am very pleased with the way our players have taken to the international arena.”
His counterpart Expo Meija knows his own charges must reach their peak if they are to take their place amongst Asia’s elite nations with victory before their passionate and enthusiastic supporters.
“That was a tough match and it was just what we needed. They (Chinese Taipei) really stretched us and we will be better for it. They were desperate and they really picked it up and tested our defensive structures, which was great for us.
“It will be a very tough match against Sri Lanka on Saturday but it is fitting that it will be the final. It comes down to who recovers best and who steps up most. Both teams are capable of winning and Sri Lanka isn’t quite surprising us.
“They have a good structure and are very solid in what they do. They have pace out wide and strong forwards. They have it all really, so we are going to have to peak on Saturday to win.
“But our guys are really keen to perform for our fans. We have been dying to have a home final and show Filipinos what we have got and we finally have that chance. The boys are up for it.”