Asian5Nations.com: The Philippines maintained their coveted spot in the HSBC Asian 5 Nations (HSBC A5N) Top 5 competition today in Manila after beating the United Arab Emirates in a close-run encounter 24-8. The Volcanoes outscored the UAE by four tries to one to become one of the few teams to maintain their spot in a higher grade after being promoted as last season’s Division I champions.
The UAE will be relegated to next year’s Division I competition and be replaced by Sri Lanka, winner of the 2013 Division I tournament. Next year’s Top 5 will serve as the direct qualifier for Rugby World Cup 2015 with the overall winner advancing to the world championships, while the runners-up will take place in an inter-continental repechage match.
Playing in front of a record 5,700 people, the highest ever match attendance at a rugby game in the Philippines, the Volcanoes jumped out to a 5-0 lead after flanker Christopher Hitch scored the opening try in the 10th minute crashing over from a scrum at the five-metre line.
Moments later, winger Gareth Holgate crossed over for the Volcanoes second try of the first half, which was successfully converted by flyhalf Alexander Aronson to bring the scores 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 penalty chances within three minutes at the mid-way point of the first half, but UAE flyhalf Andrew Russell couldn’t convert on any of the long-range opportunities.
In the 39th minute, UAE captain and openside flanker Renier Els capped off a tireless first half with a well-deserved try to pull UAE back into the fray at 12-5.
The second half saw UAE continue pressing with positive results as Russell converted a penalty attempt in the41st minute to edge UAE closer at 8-12. Further opportunity for the visitors was created by a sin-bin to Volcanoes hooker Graeme Hagan but the UAE couldn’t make the man advantage tell.
The game remained tight at 12-8 until the 58th minute when Hagan returned to the field to score a vital try and put the Volcanoes ahead at 19-8 after Aronson’s conversion.
A tense final quarter was disrupted by a temporary power outage in the last five minutes with the game stopped for ten minutes before play could resume. When the match was re-started the Volcanoes closed out the scoring for good with a try in the 79th minute to reserve back Matt Saunders.
UAE coach Duncan Hall commented after the game saying, “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.
“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.”
A delighted Volcanoes coach Jarred Hodges credited the crowd for helping to give his team the edge in a tight match, saying: “the atmosphere was electric tonight and that really helped us lift our game. 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 and fullback Michael Letts was equally pleased with the result saying, “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.”
In today’s other match, South Korea cemented their spot as number two in Asia behind Japan after they stormed to a 43-22 victory over Hong Kong in Ansan on Saturday. The Philippines will join HSBC A5Nchampions Japan, second placed side South Korea, third seeds Hong Kong and fifth seeds Sri Lanka for the kick-off of the Top 5 next April.
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