Only six years after fielding their first sevens team in international competition, the Philippines makes history by qualifying for the Rugby World Cup Sevens.
Entering the World Cup qualifying tournament ranked 7th after the three Asian ranking tournaments (6th, considering that Chinese Taipei did not participate in Singapore) the boys from the Philippines fancied their chances to live the dream of securing a Rugby World Cup Sevens spot.
The Philippines first game was against Guam and our nearby "cousins" had not been on the Asian circuit for a couple of years. They were to be reckoned with though as they had narrowly missed out on qualifying for the HK Sevens in 2010, and although they had been blitzed by Hong Kong in the first game of the tournament, they did manage to score a try against the tournament favourites.
However, the Volcanoes were not about to entertain an upset and came away with a comprehensive 33 - 0 win. Leading 21 - 0 at half-time, Coach Al Caravelli was able to use his entire bench in the second-half and he was particularly pleased that the opposition were kept scoreless. First half tries to Tim Bweheni, and two to Matt Saunders (who would finish with five of nine tries on the day) were followed by tries to stalwarts Andrew Wolff and Harry Morris. Oliver Saunders converted four of the tries.
With a quarter final spot already secured the next challenge was Hong Kong. Hong Kong's clinical re-starts weren't well handled by the Volcnaoes and, unable to get their hands on the ball, Hong Kong streaked out to a 17 - 0 lead early. The Philippines managed to compete more effectively after that early onslaught and the remainder of the game was played at 12 apiece showing that the less fancied team was starting to find their feet at this level.
In an adjusted format, which involved the playing of a quarter final on the first day, to keep the World Cup dreams alive the Philippines had to overcome a bigger and stronger Chinese outfit who had topped their group against Malaysia and Kazakhstan. The Volcanoes started strongly and Matt Saunders fended off a much larger opponent, leaving him floundering on the surface and then cleverly improved his scoring position which allowed Gareth Holgate to slot home the easiest of conversions. A second try to Matt Saunders took the Volcanoes to a 14 - 0 half-time lead.
The Philippines looked to seal the contest early in the second half and they had a couple of good opportunities but could not capitalize. As with the first half, the Pinoy defence was great, but China stormed back into contention with a converted try. In what seemed like a "minute of eternity" the game looked to be heading for extra time when the Chinese winger was striding towards the posts only to be cut down by a fabulous tackle by Joe Matthews. The drama wasn't over as the Chinese were awarded a penalty five metres out only for Harry Morris to step up with another game-saving tackle and the 14 - 7 scoreline meant that the Philippines had upset the seedings again and would progress to a semi-final against Japan on Saturday morning.
Many of the pundits in Singapore were expecting the Philippines to focus on the 3rd/4th match to nail a World Cup berth, but after challenging Japan in Mumbai three weeks ago, having them at 12-12 late in the game in India, the Volcanoes were determined to nail their spot in the semi final and avoid a sudden death match. However, as in Mumbai, Japan jumped out early and took a 12 - 0 lead, but a converted try to, (you guessed it) Matt Saunders right on half-time put the Philippines firmly in the match and, again with excellent defence, the score remained at 12 - 7 for much of the second half. A late try made it safe for the Japanese and they took the match 17 - 7.
Again, however the Volcanoes had demonstrated that they belonged on this stage, and they returned to the hotel to rest and focus on the critical match against South Korea who had been blanked by Hong Kong in the other semi-final.
After a monstrous downpour in the afternoon, and in front of a large crowd, and with Japan and Hong Kong already assured of their spots in Moscow for June 2013, the do or die match got under way with the Volcanoes fired up. Gareth Holgate, saving his best game to last powered over early, before Korea responded with a try to their speedy winger which took them into the lead. An exceptional short pass from Ryan Clarke to Andrew Wolff saw the big man scruise away to score under the posts, but in the heavy conditions, Holgate missed the conversion, leaving the score at 10 - 7. Before half-time Matt Saunders used incredible leg drive to beat off three attempts to tackle him and the conversion of his try took the Volcanoes to a 17 - 7 half-time lead.
After the break Matt Saunders made another break along the wing and a perfectly weighted inside pass found Gareth Holgate who scampered untouched over the line and many in the stadium thought the boys of the 7,100 islands were safe at 22 - 7. Nobody had told the Koreans that and they scored two tries, one of which was converted and the game was on the line, when Harry Morris made what turned out to be the last tackle of the match. The referee blew the whistle and the celebrations could begin.
Al Caravelli paid tribute to a culture among the Volcanoes of tightness with an incredible work ethic, a strong focus on defence and this amazing result is also a tribute to all those players who played in Borneo, Shanghai and Mumbai to ensure that the Philippines could have a reasonable seeding for the tournament that mattered the most.
The Philippine Team:
Coach: Al Caravelli
Manager: Expo Mejia
Physio: Rico Barin
Scores and details:
v Guam 33 - 0
Tries: M. Saunders (2), T. Bweheni, H. Morris, A. Wolff
Conversions: O. Saunders 4
v Hong Kong 12 -29
Tries: M. Saunders, A. Wolff
Conversion: G. Holgate
v China 14 - 7
Tries: M. Saunders (2)
Conversions: G. Holgate (2)
v Japan 7 - 17
Try: M. Saunders
Conversion: G. Holgate
v South Korea 22 - 19
Tries: G. Holgate (2), M. Saunders, A. Wolff
Conversion: G. Holgate
Photos by HSBC Asian Sevens Series
Photos of the Volcanoes' training session here
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