15th April 2013 by Reuben Levermore, Manila | 3 Comments
When the Philippine national rugby team lines up on Saturday against Japan, they will face the biggest test of their brief history.
Since securing full membership of the IRB in 2008, and securing four promotions in the space of only five seasons, the Philippine Volcanoes are ready to make their Asian 5 Nations debut. Then in June, the Philippines’ national rugby sevens team will play in the one off Rugby sevens World Cup in Russia, as Asia’s third qualifier.
Credit for the unlikely rise of Philippine rugby must go to a well organised national body and its sponsors, as well as a Filipino community overseas that has produced some impressive rugby talent. Many of the Volcanoes’ players grew up in Australia and several of the team now play professionally in Japan. But this is no team of international journeymen – the Volcanoes players are all of Philippine ethnicity.
I have been pleasantly surprised to find that rugby in the Philippines is not simply an elite sport followed by expats. What has impressed me more than anything else has been the support for under-privileged children to play a team sport. Local and international companies sponsor local orphanages. And volunteers – including a good number of kiwi expats – share their time and expertise. This is about more than just rugby. Playing team sport encourages teamwork, discipline, and dedication – all of which are valuable in the development of young people. I hope that the chance for these children to play against, and mix with, their more privileged peers will help to raise their sense of belonging and pride, as well as their aspirations in life.
That sense of pride is very evident in the Volcanoes’ players themselves, including captain Michael Letts who I met recently when the New Zealand Embassy hosted a reception following an exhibition seven-a-side rugby match between a Volcanoes selection and a visiting team from New Zealand. The International Rugby Academy of New Zealand is managed by former All Black legend Murray Mexted, whose team of IRANZ graduates played in the Manila 10s rugby tournament in mid-March thanks to sponsorship from expat kiwi businessman Steve Payne, himself a PRFU sponsor and member of the Board. Playing as the JML New Zealand Warriors, the IRANZ team dazzled the Manila 10s crowd and won the tournament convincingly.
The IRANZ boys represent the future of professional rugby in New Zealand. Their excellence on the field was followed by a rousing Maori haka after their win. Rugby has a strong place in New Zealand’s cultural identity, and the IRANZ team was drawn from across the country, with players of European, Maori and Pacific Island heritage.
Although rugby does not occupy the same place in Philippine culture that it does in New Zealand, it has the same potential to unite people of different backgrounds. And however the Philippine Volcanoes fare on Saturday, they can know that already they have given pride and joy to many people. I look forward to supporting them when they play against the United Arab Emirates at Manila’s Rizal Memorial Stadium on Saturday 18 May.