Philippines ready for the big time
Rugby has seen its fair share of meteoric rises, but the Philippines may be on the brink of setting a new gold standard. Only seven years after playing their first international match, the Volcanoes are now set to rub shoulders with the leading lights of Asian rugby on the road to Rugby World Cup 2015.
On Saturday, they face the biggest test in their short history. Their first HSBC Asian 5 Nations Top 5 opponents are Japan, who have developed something of a monopoly over the competition.
For Volcanoes captain Michael Letts – one of the team’s old guard – the challenge is to be welcomed in the same manner as all of their steps up rugby’s ladder, including an impressive run to the Division I title in 2012.
“I’ve been lucky enough to be involved from the start, in that core group that has been here since the beginning,” he said. “We always dreamed of this, thinking ‘it would be fantastic to make that Top 5’. Each year we’ve surprised ourselves and got up there. Now that we’re here, we don’t want to stay just for the sake of it. We want to be competitive.”
Letts, along with his scrum half brother Jake, is one of a number of Filipino players with some inside knowledge of Saturday’s opponents. They have spent the last few seasons playing professionally in Japan’s fast-growing league system, developing rapidly in a full-time environment. As well as being a vital Test match, Saturday’s contest is also a possible shop window for the Philippines’ top players.
“We have seven or eight players, including myself, who have been exposed to Japanese rugby having played over there for the last couple of seasons,” Letts said.
“We know what to expect. In saying that, Japan have been the top side in Asia forever. We’re definitely going to be up for the challenge and have got nothing to lose. The boys are really excited. It’s going to be very tough but we’ll definitely come out swinging.
“For me personally it was fantastic just to get the exposure to a full-time environment. It really helped my game. We had eight or so guys over there last year and that number may increase, I’m hoping.”
Letts and his teammates have a steep learning curve ahead of them, but they certainly do not lack the ambition to make their first season in the Top 5 a success.
A positive discussion during their preparations helped to lay out aims for the coming weeks and the message was clear – the Philippines want to be among the big boys when qualifying for the Rugby World Cup hits the home straight in 2014.
“We’ve set ourselves a target of top three for this year, and next year is a genuine World Cup qualifier,” Letts said. “We want to stay in the Top 5 and be competitive. We’ve set that target, and that would mean winning our home games against Hong Kong and the UAE at least.
“We’ve played Korea before, back in 2011, and we were unlucky not to beat them. We’ve evolved as a side since then. If we could make the World Cup it would be fantastic but that’s still a little way away. We’re on the right track at the moment.”
Letts hopes that the next stage in the Philippines’ evolution will include a higher profile in a country dominated by the stars of basketball, football and boxing. Success came quickly on-field and the fledgling union has been working hard to ensure that it is matched off it.
That challenge is every bit as real as the players’ upcoming Top 5 campaign, and their efforts have been boosted by the country’s Sevens team winning a place at Rugby World Cup Sevens in Moscow.
“From a player’s perspective we’ve worked our way up from regional level, Division 4, Division 3, Division 2 and winning Division 1 last year,” Letts said. “Now we’re in the Top 5. The union is doing a great job but we’ve probably progressed a little quicker than expected and that in itself is a challenge on their behalf in terms of money and sponsorship.
“In the Philippines, rugby is still a relatively new sport. Primarily it’s dominated by basketball and soccer over here. We’re still trying to get our name out there and over the last couple of years the sport has evolved.
“It will do even more so with the added coverage of the Top 5 and with the Sevens team qualifying for the World Cup. That might open the eyes of some people who maybe didn’t even know that the Philippines had a rugby team.”
While they may be the quiet men of the Top 5 just before kick-off, it’s safe to say that plenty of rugby fans will be talking about the Philippines if they can produce some fireworks against the Brave Blossoms this weekend.