Saved from the dark side: how Hong Kong’s rugby ‘Pigs’ are giving Philippine street kids a chance
Star-in-the-making Lito Ramirez is living proof of the impact the game is having, thanks to the Pot Bellied Pigs
Changing lives – and savings lives – has become the norm for a group of Hong Kong rugby fanatics known throughout Asia for their outlandish dress sense.
The Pot Bellied Pigs, who held their annual Fatboy 10s in Clark last weekend, are a social team in Hong Kong doing good things in the region and in the Philippines in particular.
Lito Ramirez, a shy 21-year-old, and hundreds of other young Filipinos and Filipinas have been given new lives thanks to the Piggies, as they are affectionately known.
Abandoned as a child and at times hanging over the precipice of life’s point of no return, Ramirez progress since he was introduced to rugby has been remarkable.
The versatile speedster became the first homegrown player to represent the Philippines at last year’s Olympic sevens qualifiers in Hong Kong.
He even scored a try at Hong Kong Stadium, having worked his way through the country’s grassroots programmes and national age-grade ranks to earn a berth for the Philippine Volcanoes.
But the future didn’t always look so bright for Ramirez, who grew up at the Tuloy Foundation in Alabang but also spent lengthy periods on the streets.
“He was on the streets, him and his brother JR were fighting and they actually got kicked out of the foundation because they were being bad boys, and then they were let back in,” said Philippine Rugby Football Union director of rugby Matt Cullen.
“Had they not found the sport of rugby union they could have easily gone to the dark side and ended up in jail.”
The opportunity to play rugby was afforded to Ramirez in no small part due to the charity work of the Pigs, a touring rugby side founded in 1997 that has been holding the Fatboy 10s since 2004.
A significant portion of what the Pigs make from their annual tournament goes directly into the development of rugby in the Philippines.
“I owe a lot to the Fatboy 10s and my development coaches,” Ramirez said. “Through rugby I have learned to be more responsible. It has changed my life.”
Rugby has not only changed his direction in life but also helped him prosper, with his spot in the national side giving him opportunities he would never have dreamt of.
“Through his involvement with the Volcanoes he’s met other Filipinos who have lived overseas and have a different set of values,” said Cullen.
“He now understands what it is to have respect, discipline, teamwork and commitment.”
Ramirez, who currently plays locally for the CBRE Mavericks, actually played against Hong Kong in last year’s Olympic qualifiers, with his side going down 29-0.
He was recently given the opportunity to travel to New Zealand on a four-week scholarship with the Inside Running Rugby Academy in Mount Maunganui.
While Ramirez, who works as a development officer for the PRFU, is the poster boy for homegrown rugby talent in the Philippines, Cullen says he is only one of many that have had their lives turned around by rugby.
The game has grown significantly in the country in the past three to four years, with participation numbers increasing from 2,000 kids to 10,000 and the reach of the game growing significantly thanks to backing from the Philippine Sports Commission.
“Three years ago we only had rugby clubs and junior programmes in Manila, Subic Bay, Alabang and Cebu,” Cullen said.
“We have gone from basically covering only an hour north and an hour south of Manila to having a nationwide programme.”
The game faced significant challenges in the early days due to the fact it was relatively unknown in the country, with the prospect of injuries leaving people paranoid.
Adding to the uncertainty was the fact the word rugby in the Philippines doubles as the name of a glue commonly sniffed on the streets and is responsible for ruining young lives.
“It took us five years to get over the drug stigma, and they soon realised it was touch rugby we were initially trying to promote,” said Cullen.
There are even bolder plans for the next 12 months, with the hope that the signing of a memorandum of agreement with the department of education will see numbers hit 25,000.
“That will allow us to go to schools and teach rugby,” Cullen said.
“As soon as we do that, the sky is the limit in this country because there is nearly 100 million people.”
One constant throughout the growth of rugby in the Philippines has been the Pigs and the Fatboy 10s.
“I can’t praise the Piggies enough,” Cullen said. “We wouldn’t be here as a union today if it wasn’t for them. Their funding was vital in the PRFU starting back in its infant stages.”
Their contribution is still significant, with the Pigs donating funds to rugby development through their sponsorship of the PRFU and local clubs, in particular the Clark Jets, a club they helped found.
In 2015, the 10s raised US$110,000 and this year’s event surpassed that mark.
“I think we can say we have made a difference and we get a lot of satisfaction out of seeing these kids grow,” Pigs president Anson Bailey said.
“But the children have really seized that opportunity and done a lot of that hard work themselves.”