Thursday, December 3, 2009

Meet Our National Rugby Union Team

AS a sport, not much has been known about rugby or rugby union, to be more specific, here in the Philippines. So when I was first offered to write a story about it for GARAGE magazine late last year, I had to think twice before accepting it.

But since I always wanted to write sports stories and I did find this as a challenging assignment, I relented and did some reading up on the subject. Turns out I had a really good story on my hands as the Philippine National Rugby Union Under 20’s team that I wrote about continues to bring more honors for the country, having just recently won the Asian Championships title.

The assignment was also particularly memorable as it was also my first time to work with photographer Shaira Luna. Yes, that same Promil gifted child is all grown up and is now one of the more sought after freelance photographers in the country. I believe it was also Shaira’s first time to shoot a sports-related assignment and if her pictures I posted here are anything to go by, she did very well on it, too.

I didn’t exactly saw what happened on the field as Shaira was trying to take her photos but from what I understand from our conversation later, it was quite an experience for her. I did learn that she got hit by the ball on the head (thank God it was nothing major, just a very minor bump) and that the players also took a liking to her. But she politely told the boys off by simply saying that she is three years older than all of them, hehe.

In any case, all’s well that ends well. Personally, I thought I did pretty well myself on doing a sports story that I knew nothing about. Well, you decide. Here’s a slightly revised version:

Meet the Philippine National Rugby Union Team
Text by Edwin P. Sallan
Photos by Shaira Luna

“ANYONE who enjoys playing any contact sport can play this,” the coach declares. “Tall, skinny ones, strong, fat types or the quick and speedy types, there’s a place for you in my team.”

The coach is Australian expatriate Matt Cullen and his team is none other than the relatively new and increasingly competitive Philippine National rugby union team that for the last four years has been quietly putting the country in the international rugby map.

Neither as popular as American football nor as glamorous as the David Beckham-starred soccer (original name: association football), rugby has nonetheless maintained a steady following in over 120 countries all over the world, many of them from Europe and Africa. Here in the Philippines, the sport is governed by the Philippine Rugby Football Union and has been affiliated with the International Rugby Board since 2004.

“Rugby is played both as a 15-a-side game, and as 7-a-side and 10-a-side variations called rugby union, rugby sevens and rugby league,” Cullen says while revealing that the Philippines do have a national team for each variant. “The basic object of the game is that teams should score as many points as possible, by carrying, passing, kicking and grounding the ball with the team scoring the greater number of points being the winner of the match. It is classified as an 'end zone invasion game'. The aim of each team is to gain possession of the ball, take it into opposition territory and to place it in the in-goal area or the end zone.”

Unlike American football or soccer, it is not uncommon to see fast-paced and high scoring games in rugby, particularly rugby union which the Philippine team plays. A recent game against Brunei only last July had a score of 101-0 (not a typo!) in favour of our nationals, their biggest win to date. This may be attributed to the game’s continuous possessions even when a player is tackled. More possessions naturally mean more opportunities to score.

“There are no limits on how many times you can get tackled. As long as you hold on to possession, play is not stopped,” reveals Nathan Welch, a bulky 19-year old half Australian whose mother is from Tarlac. He is also and one of the eight forwards of the Under 20’s (U/20) team. “In rugby union, you can play for as long as you want as long as you don’t get sent off,” he adds. The term “sent off” is the equivalent of being thrown out or ejected by game officials in basketball.

Welch says rugby can be an extremely physical and fiercely competitive contact sport, although he’s surprised to learn from statistics that soccer has a higher injury rate. “Because of that, courage and bravery is more important than size,” he points out. “In rugby, heart is very important.”

John Gardner, another 19-year old half-Australian forward whose mother is from Bacolod describes himself as “a marked man in every game.” Known to his teammates as Phumba, after the wild boar character in The Lion King, the brutish Gardner admits that the intense rough play of rugby does tend to get personal. “Sometimes you just lose it and get sent off,” he remarks. “But most of the time, what happens in the field stays in the field and after that, we get together with members of the other team and just have fun.”

Coach Cullen says “the long-standing tradition of players from competing teams enjoying each other’s company away after the game in a social context remains at the very core of the game.”

“It is because of, not despite, Rugby’s intensely physical and athletic characteristics that such great camaraderie exists before and after matches.” Teamwork, understanding, co-operation and respect for fellow athletes are what rugby football is all about.

Cullen who has been at the forefront of developing rugby as a fun sport that everyone can enjoy is proud of what he has achieved since taking over the reins of the national team. Since 2005, the men’s team have won one Division higher with every campaign. They went undefeated in the Divison 2 in the Asian Rugby Football Union (ARFU) Under-19 division tournament in 2006 and won the Silver Medal in the 2007 Southeast Asian Games.

Although the present U/20 team has a balanced combination of size and speed, with rookie back Jeepy Paypon, providing much-needed agility. “I’m happy coach included me in the team,” enthuses the 18-year old speedster, who also happens to be an orphan. “Although our three times a day practices are very hard, I’m happy to get this opportunity to represent our country.”

Even with an already competitive squad composed of many expats, Cullen hopes to further improve his roster with players coming from the Philippine Military Academy that now includes rugby football in its curriculum.

“Instead of going to schools like De La Salle and Ateneo to recruit our players, we prefer to go to the PMA where players are stronger and the attitude and discipline is excellent,” he rationalizes. “In five years time, I expect 50 percent of my team to be graduates of PMA.”

Right now, the Philippine Rugby Football Union has its eye on the bigger prizes. Cullen says the Southeast Asian Games is certainly within reach with the Asian Games gold not too far behind as well as the World Cup 2011. “We’re already one of the top eight nations in Asia as far as this sport is concerned,” Cullen beams. “Our potential to succeed is simply enormous, there’s no other way but up.”

For more information on the PhilippineU/20 National Rugby Union team, visit

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