Philippines to join Asia's elite in 2013

(RUGBY WORLD CUP) Saturday 21 April 2012
 
Philippines to join Asia's elite in 2013
Justin Coveney celebrates his match-winning try against Sri Lanka

The Philippines continued their march up the Asian rugby ladder in Manila on Saturday, beating Sri Lanka 28-18 to propel themselves into the HSBC Asian 5 Nations Top 5 in 2013 alongside the likes of Japan and Hong Kong.

They will become the eighth team to play in the Top 5 since the tournament began in 2008, a year which saw the Philippines playing at the bottom of the A5N pyramid. Ten wins in 11 matches later, the Philippines have reached the top echelon.

Only Japan have a record better than the Philippines in the Asian 5 Nations, having won all 16 of their matches with bonus points to maintain a stranglehold on the distinctive silverware.

While the dream of playing at Rugby World Cup 2015 remains alive for the Philippines and Sri Lanka, it has ended for Singapore after a 49-31 loss to Chinese Taipei saw them relegated to Division II, the first team with Top 5 experience to suffer this fate.

AUDIO: MATT CULLEN, PHILIPPINES TEAM MANAGER >>

AUDIO: EXPO MEJIA, PHILIPPINES COACH >>

A crowd of 4,000 packed into the Rizal National Stadium hoping to see the Volcanoes triumph and roared their team into a 23-0 lead in the first half with tries by captain Michael Letts and wing Joseph Matthews plus the boot of fly half Oliver Saunders.

"A beautiful thing"

Full back Rizah Mubarak finally got Sri Lanka on the board with a penalty to end a first half in which the top seeds seemed unable to settle and kicked away the majority of their possession.

However, new coach Phil Greening continues to have a positive impact on the team after just five weeks in charge and his half-time changes resulted in a fight back with 15 unanswered points through Gayan Rathnayaka and Sumedha Malawana tries.

Sri Lanka, relegated from the Top 5 last year, looked set to complete a remarkable comeback until centre Justin Coveney broke through the defence to spark raucous celebrations among the vociferous crowd.

“Today was a win for the Filipino people. The people came out in numbers and the guys went out and won for their country. It was a beautiful thing,” insisted Philippines coach Expo Mejia.

“This team definitely has the talent to stay in the Top 5 next season. We need to work on our structures a bit more and make sure we have all of our players available but we have started something here in the Philippines and we plan to build on that.”

Valuable lessons

The Philippines could end up fielding as many as five sets of brothers in the Top 5 next year, this year’s success having been inspired by the Saunders, Matthews and Letts brothers who have accounted for 79 of the 99 points scored by the Volcanoes in Manila.

Despite missing out on the title, former England hooker Greening could still find positives to draw on for the future. “We are a young team and I think we showed a lot of character. The one thing we will take from this is that if we don’t execute things right in Test rugby you get punished.

“It is about the small details and the small margins and we weren’t ready for that in the first half and that cost us but they’ll learn. With a 19 year old fly half in his first Tests we still managed to put the Philippines under a lot of pressure.

“We have only had them for four weeks but we have had a taste of being so close now and we will go back to Sri Lanka and take the next step forward rather than a step back.”

There was just as much to play for in the third place play-off with both sides eager to preserve their Division I status to remain in the qualifying process for RWC 2015 by collecting their first win of the round robin.

Building for the future

Chinese Taipei, last year’s Division II champions, improved throughout the tournament, having been routed in the opener by Sri Lanka and then acquitting themselves well against the Philippines on Wednesday.

Their improvement shone through in an emphatic and memorable win on Saturday, led by a standout performance from full back Chu Chi Weih, who contributed 24 points with two tries, three penalties and four conversions.

“Now that we have managed to retain our position we plan to select a larger squad earlier so that we can focus on our improvement over the next year. Our goal will be to compete at Division I level and crack the Top 5 of the HSBC Asian 5 Nations for the first time,” said Chinese Taipei coach Edward Bai.

This year’s Division I has marked the start of the RWC 2015 qualifying process in Asia, one which will continue with the Division II and III tournaments in Kuala Lumpur in June, the winners of which will meet in a play-off for the right to replace Singapore in Division I.

The RWC 2015 qualifying focus now returns to the Americas with the continuation of the NACRA Caribbean Championship 2012 involving Mexico, Jamaica, Cayman Islands, Barbados, St Vincent, Trinidad & Tobago, Bahamas, Bermuda and Guyana.