SINGAPORE >> Jolly Gomez devised a unique benchmark for recruiting overseas-born players for the Philippines: If you can remember your mother forcing you to get up and sing in front of the family, you’re in.
And so it was that the Philippines could assemble a rugby sevens squad featuring players from places like France, Australia, the United States and Japan for the Southeast Asian Games, where they took a bow on the weekend after an undefeated run to the gold medal.
They can sing; they can dance, as they did on the victory podium in Singapore; and they can certainly play rugby. Next target is the Asian qualifying tournament in November for the 2016 Olympics.
Jake Letts was raised near Sydney’s northern beaches, a quintessentially Australian place. But he grew up with his mother keeping some strong Filipino traditions alive, and he laughs when he recalls selection criteria espoused by Jolly, who works for the Philippines Sports Commission.
“That’s what it is,” Letts said. “You have to do that — it’s all the food, it’s singing, dancing … all part of it.”
His mother was from the Philippines, “one of nine — our family is huge,” said Letts, who has played for the Philippines for a decade and lives in Manila. He came to it by chance in his last year of high school, through a friend at the Warringah Rugby Club who knew of the Filipino connection.
“That’s one of the most special things. When you play sport, it’s almost always for your dad,” Letts said. “We have the opportunity to represent our mother’s country. All us players, we took it with both hands and we’ve never been more proud.”
The Philippines beat Malaysia 24-7 in the final at Choa Chu Kang Stadium, quite a distance from the Singapore Sports Hub that is hosting most of the SEA Games sports. There’s some rugby tradition in Singapore, so the grandstand was full.
“I think our story is the most special,” Letts said, talking about the squad which gathers from all over the world, including the four players with professional contracts in Japan. “We call ourselves a brotherhood because that’s what it really is. We all had the same upbringing. All our mothers raised us the Filipino way. We have very similar stories.”
Patrice Olivier is quite distinctive within the team. He’s the tallest, he plays as a professional and he speaks with a distinct French accent when he describes how proud he is to a win a gold medal.
“I’m French Filipino — (others are) half Welsh, half Aussie, half USA,” he said. “It’s such a mix when we bring the band together. It’s just beautiful. We have a very strong link.”
Preparing the squad has its challenges for coach Geoff Alley, who splits his time between national team duties and living in Auckland, New Zealand.
For the SEA Games, he had the squad together for 10 days. His main task for 2015 is to try to get the team into the Olympics via a regional qualifying tournament in Hong Kong in November.
“With this team, we could give Japan and Hong Kong a good crack,” he said. “As long as we keep this group together, keep hammering the patterns, we should be fine.”
Gomez is a commissioner of the Philippines Sports Commission, which puts a big emphasis on development. Overseas-born players have been recruited for other sports, most notably in soccer.
“In the development plan we’ve had for rugby, the first thing was to bring in some Philippines-heritage athletes,” Gomez said. “One of the things I told the athletes is, ‘You have to rediscover your country.’ I told all these kids, ‘Has your mother ever forced you to perform in front of your relatives? If the answer is yes, then you are a Filipino.'”
He said it was important to recruit players to develop the game at the local, grassroots level, “because you need heroes.”
“So, maybe today you have guys like this, but in a couple more SEA Games and maybe the Olympics, you’re going to see a homegrown strong lineup mixed with people like what we have right here,” Gomez said.
Trevor Gregory, the Hong Kong-based president of Asia Rugby, applauds the Philippines’ approach, saying the interest and standard of sevens rugby across the continent has grown quickly in the last three years and “for sure, winning a medal at a SEA Games is a massive boost.”
“It’s impressive to see the way the Philippines is playing,” Gregory said. “It shouldn’t be discouraged.”
“(The players) are qualified. It lifts the level of the game,” he added. “The (Olympic) charter says bring your best athletes.”