Slow start, but Philippines rugby eyes gold
Gold is the goal for the Philippines, where rugby has seen a tremendous push forward
In a span of 16 years, rugby has gone from a mere social activity for expatriates, to one that has flown the Philippines' flag, in the midst of the planet's best, at the World Cup.
They are mostly made up of players with Filipino heritage who live overseas, but the country is slowly rallying around a group of players who can call themselves trailblazers, and they have got their eyes firmly set on gold at this South-east Asia (SEA) Games.
It was at the 2012 Singapore Sevens that the Philippines confirmed their qualification for the Rugby Sevens World Cup 2013 in Moscow, and the Philippine Volcanoes are hoping for more success in the Lion City.
"We are trying to create something from nothing, yes," said captain Jake Letts, after their morning training session yesterday. "When the team went to the 2007 SEA Games, the jersey had sponsor logos everywhere, because we had to find a way to pay our way to Thailand ourselves.
"That silver medal was a major step for us - it helped open doors. And now our target here has to be gold - no team come here looking for second place."
The Philippines finished behind Thailand at the Korat Games, the last time the sport featured at the region's biennial Games, with Singapore taking bronze.
After an eight-year absence, the sport returns with six teams in the men's event, and five in the women's competition.
And, in those eight years, Matthew Cullen, the Philippine Rugby Football Union (PRFU) technical director, asserts the sport has seen phenomenal growth.
It is now a recognised sport that does not have to foot its own bill for coming to the SEA Games, and it did not just stop there.
"I've been there since 1999 when the sport first got going and, in these last eight years, we've seen a massive development of the sport in the country," said Cullen, who proudly spoke of their high-performance unit in South Manila, a facility that features two fields, a pool, a clubhouse, as well as a 60-man dormitory.
He believes winning gold here is important to further raise the profile of the game.
"We snuck into the World Cup in Singapore - that was the pinnacle, and our next target is to be successful here again," said Cullen.
"Winning medals definitely promotes the sport with the government, the media and even the sponsors."
Neither Letts nor Cullen expects an easy time here. Indeed, it was initially a challenge convincing the Filipinos that they were deserving of flying the country's flag.
Their official SEA Games player profiles indicate that only one player - Christopher Hitch - was born in the Philippines, with the other 11, hailing from Australia, the United States and Britain.
But Letts asserts that they are all bonded by their Filipino heritage.
"I wouldn't say that it was a problem (convincing people that were Filipino), but it was challenging. I grew up in Australia, and there they called me the Asian kid there but, in the Philippines, I'm the foreign one too," said 26-year-old Letts, who along with his older brother Michael, joined the Philippines in 2006.
"But passion is what keeps us going. We all chose to play for the Philippines, it's not like we're getting paid to do it. I chose to play for the Philippines because of my mum, and it's definitely our mums that make us Filipino - we eat rice every day, along with Filipino food.
"And we're all raised the Filipino way, even in Australia. I remember us asking each other: does your mum do this, does she do that? And we had very similar stories."
And Letts believes the country has started to rally behind the Volcanoes.
"The support in the Philippines is honestly amazing, and, yes, going to the World Cup was a major step for us and, if we do manage gold here, it will be another major step," he said.
Both Letts and Cullen picked Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore as serious contenders for the gold medal that they covet, and neither had any illusions about the task that lies ahead.
Laos and Cambodia are the other two teams in the mix.
- When: Today and Tomorrow
- Where: Choa Chu Kang Stadium (Tickets sold out)
- On offer: 2 gold, 2 silver, 2 bronze medals (men's and women's)
- History: 1 bronze 2007 (men), 1 silver 2007 (women)
- Milestones: The 2007 Korat Games was only the second time that Rugby 7s was a medal sport at a SEA Games. Thailand are the defending champions in the men's competition.
- Singapore's men's team: Daniel Marc Chow (captain), Derek Chan, Ho Yi Shu, Blandon Tan, Jonathan Lee, Muhummad Zaki, Naresh Kunasegaran, Max Ducourneau, Bryan Ng, Marah Ishraf, Samuel Teo, Nicholas Yau
- Did you know? Head coach Ismail Kadir and team manager Clarence Lam both played for Singapore in 15s and 7s rugby. They were part of the only team to have beaten the Japan side at the 2002 Hong Kong Rugby 7s.
- The New Paper's medal prediction: Gold. The Philippines rank as favourites after finishing fourth at last year's Asian Games. But, on home soil, expect Singapore to finish in the top two of the round-robin phase and earn a spot in the gold-medal match. With a good mix of seasoned campaigners (Daniel Marc Chow) and promising youth (Marah Ishraf, Max Ducourneau), the hosts look a good bet for glory in both the men's and women's competitions.
Thais count on speed and youth for rugby gold
Size might count in rugby.
But tell the Thailand rugby sevens team that they're relatively smaller than their opponents, and they will simply laugh it off.
"No problem. We too fast, so no contact (anyway)," said captain Sarayuth Thiengtrong in his limited English.
Gold medallists in 2007 - the last time rugby featured at the South-east Asia (SEA) Games - the Thais will be serious contenders, along with Singapore and favourites Philippines, for rugby glory this weekend.
The tournament starts today with the preliminary rounds at the Choa Chu Kang Stadium and ends tomorrow with the bronze-medal match and final.
Cambodia, Laos and Malaysia are the other teams competing in a round-robin format, with the top two advancing to the gold-medal match.
Thailand, who have two veterans from 2007, Sarayuth and Somsak Mitrak, are confident of lining up in the final.
They have had only two months of preparation and, aside from Sarayuth, 35, and Somsak, 27, the majority of the 12-man squad are aged between 19 and 21.
At Thursday's training session at the Yio Chu Kang Stadium, the team went through a series of speed exercises, accelerating with the ball over short and long distances.
"We have a new team, very young, but also very fast," said assistant coach Pawaj Jarounapat.
"Most of this team played in last year's Asian Games (in Incheon, where they finished seventh of 12 teams), so we know each other well.
"We know our opponents well also. We played Singapore before and they are a good team.
"Philippines are also a good team, and these three teams (have an even) chance."
Singapore and Thailand split the two meetings between them during the Asian Sevens Series last year.
The Republic beat the Thais in Hong Kong in September, but lost in Kuala Lumpur a month later.
Singapore team manager Clarence Lam, a former national player, said the Thais could be pulling a smokescreen by bringing a young team.
"They have always been a good sevens side, probably because they enjoy it more than the 15s. They have a lot of speed and individual flair," said Lam.
"We've seem some familiar faces within their camp but, whatever it is, the Thais always have an endless supply of talent coming through.
"They have as much of a shot as anyone for the gold. They are the defending champions, after all.
"But, between them and the Philippines, to be honest, our biggest rivals are ourselves."
SINGAPORE’S RUGBY 7S SCHEDULE
(All matches at Choa Chu Kang Stadium)
10.25am: Cambodia v SINGAPORE (Men)
11.40am: Thailand v SINGAPORE (Women)
1.20pm: SINGAPORE v Philippines (Men)
2.10pm: Malaysia v SINGAPORE (Women)
3.50pm: SINGAPORE v Malaysia (Men)
4.15pm: Laos v SINGAPORE (Women)
10.50am: Thailand v SINGAPORE (Men)
11.40am: SINGAPORE v Philippines (Women)
12.30pm: Laos v SINGAPORE (Men)
3.00pm: Men’s fifth-sixth placing
3.25pm: Women’s bronze-medal match
3.50pm: Men’s bronze-medal match
4.15pm: Women’s gold-medal match
4.45pm: Men’s gold-medal match