RWC 2015 dream still alive for Philippines
The Philippines remain in the elite tier of the HSBC Asian 5 Nations after beating United Arab Emirates 24-8 at the Rizal Stadium in Manila on Saturday in the battle to avoid relegation to Division I for next season.
The Top 5 newcomers had a difficult baptism to live in the elite tier with a 121-0 defeat by Japan in round one, but have shown improvements as the competition has progressed and were rewarded with victory that keeps them in the RWC 2015 qualification picture.
A record crowd of 5,700 for a rugby match in the Philippines saw the Volcanoes outscore their visitors by four tries to one, although two of those tries came in the last quarter, which include a stoppage for a power outage.
Flanker Christopher Hitch scored the opening try in the 10th minute, crashing over from a scrum five metres out, and shortly afterwards wing Gareth Holgate crossed for the Volcanoes’ second try, converted by fly half Alex Aronson to take the hosts out to 12-0.
The UAE quickly regained its shape and the momentum subtly shifted to the visitors as they forced the Volcanoes into making mistakes. The Philippines conceded three penalties within three minutes midway through the first half, but UAE fly half Andrew Russell was unable to convert any of the long-range opportunities.
They finally did get on the board a minute before the break when captain and flanker Renier Els capped off a tireless first half with a well-deserved try, and within a minute of the restart that deficit was cut further with a Russell penalty.
The loss of Graeme Hagan to the sin-bin did not prove costly for the Philippines as the score remained 12-8 until the 58th minute when the hooker returned to the field to score his side’s third try.
A tense final quarter was disrupted by a temporary power outage in the last five minutes with the match stopped for 10 minutes before play could resume. The stoppage did not derail the Philippines as Matt Saunders touched down in the final minute.
“The atmosphere was electric tonight and that really helped us lift our game,” admitted a delighted Philippines coach Jarred Hodges.
“We are thrilled to be staying up in the top flight but most importantly we now know what it takes to compete at this level. We understand that we have a lot to work on in the coming 12 months to see how we can move one win in the campaign to two or three next year.”
Philippines captain Michael Letts was equally pleased with the result. “We did just enough to retain our spot which was the ultimate goal. Now we want to continue to build as a team.
“With the Volcanoes also taking part in the Rugby World Cup Sevens in June, and being the first Philippines team sport to play in a world championship, the profile and awareness of the Game is going to grow from rapidly in the Philippines.”
UAE coach Duncan Hall was in reflective mood afterwards. “We’re disappointed to be relegated for the first time since 2009 but fair play to the Philippines they did well. We suffered in the humid conditions as we are used to a dry heat in Dubai. The ball became hard for us to manage and we turned it over 14 times in the first half through handling errors. We gave them too much possession at the end of the day.
Building for the future
“We now need to review where we are at and plan how we return to the Top 5 from Division I next year, but with the average age of our squad at 33 years old, we are still going to face the same challenges we did this year. We will need to identify some new younger players now and work intensively with them over the next 12 months.”
The other match on the final weekend of the Top 5 saw Korea beat Hong Kong 43-22 to claim second place behind runaway winners Japan, who have won all 24 of their matches in the elite tier with a bonus point.
Korea will hope to replicate this runners-up finish next year when the Asia 1 qualifier for Rugby World Cup 2015 will be determined, that spot being enough to secure them a place in the Repechage for the 20th and final place at England 2015.
The home side scored seven tries in Ansan, a couple of them when down to 13 men late in the second half, with outstanding fly half Oh Youn Hyung grabbing a hat-trick and wing Kim Gwong Min a brace to finish as the top try-scorer in the Top 5 with eight tries.
Korea led 12-6 at the break with Kim and Oh each scoring a try. Hong Kong fly half Niall Rowark kept his side in the match by knocking over two penalties. It could have been even closer but the Hong Kong backline failed to make good use of the possession won by their hard-working forwards.
“We worked hard to stay in touch but they are a good side,” said Hong Kong head coach Leigh Jones. “Our forwards played superbly but unfortunately the same cannot be said of our backs.”
Hong Kong number Pale Tauti was a driving force and at the centre of many attacks as the visiting pack held their own in the set pieces and turned over ball on a number of occasions. But despite good work from second row Charles French, flanker Matt Lamming and prop Ian Ridgway, Hong Kong failed to turn territory into points in the first half.
Scoring under pressure
Korea came storming off the blocks in the second half with both Oh and Kim scoring their second tries to stretch the lead to 24-6. Rowark cut the deficit with his third successful penalty before wing Jonny Rees was on hand to finish off a multi-phase move with a try in the corner.
Another Rowark penalty cut the deficit to 24-17, but despite the home side losing prop Kim Kwang Sik to the sin bin for repeated transgressions at the breakdown, it was 14-man Korea who scored next as Oh completed his hat-trick.
The hosts were then reduced to 13 men with replacement Jang Seong Min yellow-carded, but once again Korea handled the pressure better, albeit perhaps fortuitously with centre Kim Nam Uk intercepting to run 80 metres for a try under the posts.
Oh added the conversion to take his personal tally in the match to 23, which saw him finish as the top points-scorer in the Top 5 with 68 points, just ahead of Japan full back Ayumu Goramaru.
Korea finished with a flourish with replacement flanker Kim Jeong Min finishing off a lovely burst from scrum half Yang Young Hun to score in the right corner. The final word, though, went to Hong Kong with captain Tom McColl scoring a late consolation try.
“They are a good side. They have a lot of players playing professionally in the Japan Top League and we couldn’t afford to give them an easy lead which they had on a number of occasions during the match,” Jones said.
Sri Lanka will replace the United Arab Emirates in the Top 5 next year, having beaten Chinese Taipei, Kazakhstan and Thailand to win the Division I title last month.