Hong Kong Sevens

How a nude photo raised game in the Philippines

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 March, 2012, 12:00am

The naked truth about the red-hot Philippine Volcanoes was their meteoric rise in Asian rugby went unnoticed back home until a nude picture stunt stirred controversy.

While boxing champion Manny Pacquiao dominates the psyche of sports-loving Filipinos and basketball is followed passionately, few know about rugby or even the fact the country has one of the most successful teams on the Asian scene.

To address this perceived slight, the men's national rugby team, mainly made up of 'heritage-Filipinos' or from mixed marriages, posed for an underwear company in skimpy briefs to raise awareness in a public hooked on the dunks of the Philippine Basketball Association and the jabs of southpaw Pacquiao.

Among the players who bravely accepted the brief to pose almost naked with just a rugby ball in hand, was sevens captain Jake Letts, a Filipino-Australian.

The underwear campaign, run on huge billboards across the country, was a success in that it created a huge controversy. Many in the Catholic country were incensed at the sexual connotations of the advertisements. They railed at the indecency of the almost-naked young men showing off their abs and pecs.

The conservatives won the day and the billboards were taken down. But thanks to social networking sites, the underwear ads proved a hit and today more people in the Philippines are aware of a game called rugby.

But just to prove the national team is not all about looks, Letts and company put on a good show in their Hong Kong Sevens debut yesterday, despite losing 35-5 to the highly rated Canadians.

'Many people might not know about rugby, but loads know about the Hong Kong Sevens, and we know a few good results will go a long way to help raise the profile of the game even more in the Philippines,' coach Matt Cullen said.

Ever since the Philippine Rugby Football Union decided to use the International Rugby Board's parent-grandparent rule whereby players with Filipino heritage are eligible to represent the country, the Volcanoes have made big strides. Next to Japan, they are the most successful team in Asia, having lost only one game in the past four years in 15s.

They won promotion from Division Four in the HSBC Asian Five Nations to Division One in successive years and were only beaten for the first time last season by South Korea in the contest to win promotion into the 2012 Top Five competition.

They have matched this remarkable rise in sevens too, finishing last season's HSBC Asian Sevens Series in fourth place behind Japan, Hong Kong and China, thus earning an invitation to this weekend's party.

'The last 12 months has been a remarkable time for our sevens programme and the popularity of the game is filtering down to the public,' Cullen said. 'Taking part for the first time in Asia's biggest rugby event will only add to our momentum and awareness [about us].

'The idea that players from the Philippines can do well and earn the chance to be on the world stage is so exciting for the development of rugby in the region, not just the Philippines. Our players will want to show that they are good enough to be on this stage.'

Unfortunately Christopher Hitch was sin-binned right from the kick-off when he tackled an opponent in mid-air. It left the Philippines with six men on the pitch and sevens-savvy Canada made the most of it as they rushed to a 21-0 lead. Justin Coveney raised the roof with a diagonal rub, giving the Philippines their first try at the Hong Kong Sevens.

It was a small step for Asia's newcomers.