By Gabby Alvarado
HONG KONG - Don’t stop believing.
That’s the message of coach Frano Botica to his Philippine Volcanoes after they narrowly missed a place in the semi-finals of the Rugby World Sevens Series qualifying tournament on one of the proudest days for the country on the international stage.
A 17-7 defeat to hosts Hong Kong in their knockout quarter-final ended the Volcanoes’ hopes in an exciting, well-fought match that had home fans dreading the worst as Botica’s men threatened an upset under the glare of the Hong Kong Stadium lights.
The result followed the Volcanoes’ stunning 24-12 victory over Zimbabwe in the morning, a beauty of a try by Ryan Howe highlighting their first win in the history of the competition that rescued a near-disastrous first day, enough to land them in the quarter-finals.
“It’s probably our best performance against Hong Kong,” said Botica, a former New Zealand All Black who began coaching the team three years ago. “We had our opportunity. We made a couple of mistakes, and at this level you make one or two mistakes and it can cost you points.
“We’re proud of the boys … we had our chances, we could have taken them in that game. We didn’t quite get there but we’ll get them one day soon.”
Howe’s early try and the Volcanoes’ aggressive game kept Hong Kong scoreless in the first half until tries from Salom Yiu Kam-shing and Russell Webb – both of which had to be referred to the video referee before they were finally given – swung the match into the home side’s favor. A late try by Tom McQueen completed Hong Kong’s comeback, much to the relief of their fans.
Things did not look good for Botico’s men on Friday after successive defeats against Hong Kong and Tonga left them in a must-win situation against Zimbabwe in Pool E. Rather than succumb to the pressure, they played loosely than they’ve ever done before.
Aided by two tries from Howe, the Volcanoes stunned Zimbabwe 24-12 to reach the quarter-finals and set up a grudge match against Hong Kong, who beat them 33-17 in their opening game. If the Volcanoes were out of it from the word go in their first match against Hong Kong, last night’s quarter-final was definitely too close for comfort for the home side.
Through all their four matches, the Volcanoes turned heads with their solid play and resolute performances.
Pundits have described them as the surprise package of the tournament while their army of fans are growing, with some neutrals chanting ‘Volcanoes, Volcanoes’ during their games.
Botico credited his team’s improvement – and their showing against Hong Kong – to more experience and the availability of more players for the campaign.
“And the belief that we can beat them,” the New Zealander said. “The belief is getting stronger and stronger and stronger. And I think it’s just a matter of time before we do finally beat them.”
After their Sevens experience, Botico has reason to look at the Volcanoes’ future with more optimism.
“The experience has been amazing and I think it will help our players to develop to become stronger and better players,” he said.
“The more hard games we play, the better we will become.
“We’re getting better and better in the last four tournaments we’ve played and it’s just a shame now we have three or four months before our next tournament.”