Volcanoes eye Rio Olympics spot in Asian qualifier
We want our best team that won in Singapore to make it to the Asian Olympic qualifiers, whose champion will get to play outright in the Rio Olympic Games next year --- national coach Matt Cullen
The Philippine Rugby Football Union aims to assemble the entire Volcanoes squad that captured the men’s rugby sevens gold medal in the recent 28th Southeast Asian Games in Singapore in an all-out bid to top the Asian Olympic qualifying tournament scheduled Nov. 7 to 8 in Hong Kong.
“We want our best team that won in Singapore to make it to the Asian Olympic qualifiers, whose champion will get to play outright in the Rio Olympic Games next year,” said national coach Matt Cullen in Tuesday’s Philippine Sportswriters Association (PSA) Forum at Shakey’s Malate in Manila.
“Since most of our strongest players are overseas we can only form them for a limited time similar to what we did in the last SEA Games,” Cullen noted. “So our best chance in making it to Rio is by winning the Hong Kong event.”
Cullen came to the session together with Volcanoes team captain Jake Letts plus national team aspirants Jonel Madrona and Andrew Catepon, whose Clark Jets bagged the rugby sevens gold medal in the just-concluded POC-PSC Philippine National Games.
Composed mostly of youth from the Bahay Bata orphanage in Angeles City, Pampanga, the Jets humbled the Alabang Eagles, 22-17, bannered by Letts and three other regular Volcanoes in the PNG championship match.
“That the Jets won over the Eagles show what we have been saying that in rugby sevens you don’t need bulk and size like regular rugby but speed, agility, and skill,” said Cullen, noting that Madrona, the Jets’ team captain, and Catepon stood 5-foot and 5-foot-5, respectively.
“Madrona and Catepon are products of our grassroots development program and answers the question often asked of us if we have been developing local talent instead of relying on our overseas players,” he added. “They are among our future Volcanoes.”
Letts bared that Madrona, who plays right flank, and teammate Lito Ramirez, a winger, would now be part of the Volcanoes training pool preparing for the Asian Seven’s rugby series kicking off in August in Shanghai, China.
But for the Olympic qualifying event, the Australian mentor and longtime Manila resident said, “we are calling back our entire SEA Games gold-medal winning team, which I believe has a strong chance against of beating top-ranked Japan and No. 2 Hong Kong.
“Our main aim is to smash Japan to the ground and book our ticket to Rio.”
He recalled the Volcanoes narrowly lost to the Japanese, 19-21, the last time the two sides met “so anything is possible.”
Cullen said the 12 top teams in Asia will be taking part in the two-day Hong Kong competitions and will likely be bracketed in three groups of four squads each in the preliminary round.
“Based on previous experience, the Volcanoes need to win five matches to make it all the way to the finals, and we are optimistic we can make it that far,” he said.
While the Asian Olympic qualifying champion advances outright to the Rio Games, Cullent said the next top three teams will still have a chance to make it to the quadrennial showcase in succeeding Olympic qualifiers scheduled next year.