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Hurting for greatness: The SEA Games and the road ahead for the Lady Volcanoes

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It is a heavy day for the Philippine Women’s National Rugby Team. After months of twice a day trainings—one in the morning for strength and conditioning and another in the afternoon for field work—the Lady Volcanoes’ training pool is being cut down to the final 12 who will be representing the Philippines in the rugby 7’s event for the 28th Southeast Asian Games in Singapore.

There are visible tears on some of the players as the coaching team breaks the news. There are also some sighs of relief and obvious signs of joy on those who passed muster and are part of the final 12. Team dynamics play into the mix and hugs go around along with words of comfort for those who need it. In spite of all this, it is only the start of the road ahead. More will still be demanded of these players.

On the late afternoon of this Thursday for example, there is still the second training session of the day to be lived through.

“You can’t fit in 18 players into 12 [slots] but my philosophy is that without all those players we wouldn’t have a team ready for Singapore.

 

“It’s always difficult as a coach,” says the woman leading this team, Shirley Russell, 47, head coach of the Lady Volcanoes. “You can’t fit in 18 players into 12 [slots], but my philosophy is that without all those players we wouldn’t have a team ready for Singapore.”

Prior to her appointment as head coach of the Lady Volcanoes, Coach Shirley was a rugby player for the Australian national team before she transitioned into a coaching career that saw her lift the 2009 rugby 7’s World Cup trophy with the Wallaroos. By chance, and through former Lady Volcanoes head coach and now assistant coach to the team Susan Konstanty, this once elite-level player turned elite-level coach is now head of the Philippine women’s national team program. Asked on the challenges she’s had to face with the team, the Australian minces no words.

“[It’s] probably the skill-level of the players… because I come from an elite-level, considered as [a] global thing, rather than [here] in the Philippines where it’s still developing. It’s been challenging when it comes to that. Coming back down [but at the same time] trying to lift the girls up to where they need to be at the global/elite-level.”

The team’s training has so far centered on three things, according to Coach Shirley: the catch-pass, the tackle, and finding the combinations of players who work best together. “We’ve been having 3 to 4 field trainings a week—working constantly on what I call are real basic skills and its improved tremendously. Beforehand they couldn’t pass the ball 10 meters accurately or consistently, now a lot of them can do that.”

Rugby is a sport well-known for its physical play. Practitioners of it are often individuals with muscular frames—a necessity for bearing the brunt of tackles, and for pushing forward at the free-for-all ruck—but perhaps lesser noticed, especially for those not familiar with the game, is the technique that comes into playing this full-contact sport.

“When people first encounter rugby players, [their reaction is] hindi ba yan masakit sa katawan?” says Hilla Indigne, 27, prop/winger and vice-captain for the Lady Volcanoes.

Like most of her teammates, Hilla, is a product of the Philippine Rugby Football Union’s grassroots program and has only been playing the sport for a couple of years. “Done properly it doesn’t hurt,” the former power-forward for the Ateneo Lady Eagles says of the tackle.

“In rugby, what you’re trying to think [of] when you go through it is you go hard, especially when you’re going in for a tackle. Because when you start having doubts that’s when you get injured. That’s what our coach keeps telling us. When you’re going into contact, don’t think about second thoughts… Go in, go hard, you’ll be a lot safer that way.”

Go in and go hard, says Hilla Indigne, 27, prop/winger.

Go in and go hard, says Hilla Indigne, 27, prop/winger.

In human kinetics, the SAID principle stands for Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands. It’s a key reason for training in a particular manner and with progression over the course of preparation for athletic competition. It’s also why athletes of different sports end up looking a certain way: the distance runner is thin and wiry, while the sprinter is ripped for explosiveness. There may be no perfect rugby body, but comparing rugby union’s two forms, 7-a side and 15-a side, Coach Shirley says 7’s is the leaner and faster of the two versions.

“For our game in particular, we need a lot of strength. And in the game, we need a lot of conditioning. The fact that you predominantly play 3 games in a day, then you could play up to 3 games the next day… you need endurance for that. You’ve got to be mentally tough and you’ve got to be prepared for it in strength and conditioning. It’s a different type of game. You’ve got to keep moving, you’ve got to do these things, whereas 15s is more strategic [and] more like a chess game. Here, you don’t have time for that.” Speed is the name of the game.

Lady Volcanoes captain and scrum half Acee San Juan, 28, adds that “One missed tackle [and] there’s less chance for that player to get tackled [again]” which leads to more scoring chances. Although the 15’s and 7’s is played in the same size pitch,“The field is bigger [in 7’s as] there are less players,” she says.

Acee San Juan, 28, scrum half. The Lady Volcanoes captain admits that at just a little under 5 feet tall she is usually the smallest competitor at tournaments. World-class coach Shirley Russell, however, describes San Juan as “the most determined” of the bunch.

Acee San Juan, 28, scrum half. The Lady Volcanoes captain admits that at just a little under 5 feet tall she is usually the smallest competitor at tournaments. World-class coach Shirley Russell, however, describes San Juan as “the most determined” of the bunch.

Going into the SEA Games this June, the sentiment of the players is some nervousness but a readiness to face the tasks ahead.

“[This is] the first time ever for us,” confesses team captain Acee in a mixture of Filipino and English. “The men’s team played in 2007 and they got silver… On our part, from having lived at the PSC’s athlete’s dorm in Ultra, we feel [that] privilege of being part of team Philippines [and] our common goal is for the ranking of the Philippines to go up.”

Ada Milby, 31 and prop for the squad, says “All of the teams have their strengths and we know we’ll have to give each match 100% effort.”

Rugby in the Philippines is a relatively small but thriving community and the line-up of the Lady Volcanoes represents a grassroots effort that’s bearing fruit: Madille Salinas, 28 and hooker for the team, for example is among the Cebuanas active in this line-up. A medal at the games would do well for the sport’s further development, to get not only more players interested in rugby, but also get younger girls started at the sport.

Ada Milby (right) gave birth to a baby girl last February 28 and is back training with the Lady Volcanoes. At 31, she plays the position of prop for the squad and has also been one of the driving forces behind rugby development in the country through her involvement with the Philippines' rugby union governing body.

Ada Milby (right) gave birth to a baby girl last February 28 and is back training with the Lady Volcanoes. At 31, she plays the position of prop for the squad and has also been one of the driving forces behind rugby development in the country through her involvement with the Philippines’ rugby union governing body.

In the five-country women’s rugby 7’s event, Coach Shirley tags Thailand and host-country Singapore as the teams to beat. “They’ve been in a full-time program for longer,” says coach. “They get more opportunities to play more games than we do…. because rugby like most sports is you’ve got to be doing it and you’ve got to be doing it well. The other two countries Laos and Malaysia I know they’ve been working really hard also, but I think we should be able to beat them and beat them well.”

What stands between the girls and a medal finish are four countries, but according to the team’s motto, what stands between those teams and the Lady Volcanoes is the battle-cry “Laban Pilipinas”.

During the eight-year hiatus of rugby from the SEA Games roster, the fast and dynamic 7’s game has increased in popularity worldwide. In 2009, the sport was officially named an Olympic event and is to be included in Rio in 2016.

With this SEA Games in particular, the Lady Volcanoes are the test case for the country’s medal potential in the sport, and the Philippine Sports Commission along with the Philippine Olympic Committee has thrown their support behind the team. “They’ve provided everything for us,” from billeting, nutrition, strength & conditioning, physical therapy, sports vision and sports psychology consultations, says captain Acee. “Siguro ito na yung best preparation ever for team Philippines….first time namin pero feel namin ito na yung best.”

“Alaga kami,” she adds.

As for Coach Shirley, she knows all too well the incentive for countries to develop sports when golden glory is at stake: “An Olympic sport will open up new avenues [and] if the [government] could continue the support, the [Philippines] could be very competitive.”

Rugby may not be a sport familiar to Filipinos, but development is all about knowing what is possible and taking steps to get there. Greatness is worked for in any field. The road ahead maybe tough, but then again the Lady Volcanoes have been training for just that.

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Raymond Almazan ejected in return

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Photo by PBA Images

It was supposed to be a redemption game for Raymond Almazan after he was benched last Wednesday for the Rain or Shine Elasto Painters against the Phoenix Fuel Masters, for disciplinary reasons. But unfortunately, it went the the other way around.

The six-foot-eight center was ejected in the Elasto Painters’ match versus Kia Picanto on Friday evening at the Cuneta Astrodome, following a near-brawl that took place between him and opposing big man Eric Camson.

The incident took place with 3:01 remaining in the second quarter, with the Picanto ahead 34-31. Almazan and Camson were both inside the paint looking for position to grab the missed three-pointer of Jeremy King.

Things then went chippy afterwards, as Camson elbowed Almazan. It did not sit well with the latter and he retaliated, leading to the near-brawl that saw both players swing their arms at each other.

Almazan and Camson had to be separated by their teammates and officials. Moments later, both of them were whistled for a flagrant foul penalty two and were ordered to leave the playing court for good.

Almazan finished with six points and three rebounds in six minutes and 10 seconds of action, while Camson exited the bout with 10 markers, five rebounds, and four assists in over 16 minutes of playing time.

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Fired-up Von Pessumal on Kiefer Ravena incident: ‘I’m not here to make any friends’

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Will bridges be burned?

Von Pessumal was heavily-scrutinized Friday evening after an incident with fellow Ateneo lifer Kiefer Ravena.

It took place with 9:50 left in the final frame of the San Miguel Beermen’s highly-charged tilt against the NLEX Road Warriors. After Marcio Lassiter launched a trey, Pessumal looked like he was aiming for the rebound. Instead, he simply charged towards Ravena and pushed him down.

Lassiter’s three-pointer counted, while Pessumal, who was blocked by Ravena in a fastbreak and then received a staredown moments prior, was whistled for an unsportsmanlike foul.

It was a surprising sight to see considering the amount of time he and Ravena have spent together — a bond that started ever since they were in high school. Even the second-generation star admitted that he did not expect that from his former running buddy.

“I did not expect that at all,” said the NLEX rookie.

But Pessumal downplayed such incident despite attempts by scribes to make him elaborate what had really transpired during that moment.

“It’s part of the game. It’s part of the game,” the league sophomore said after the match which they won 109-98. “I don’t wanna say anything, I’m sorry.

“It’s part of the game. Whatever move on. Not a big deal.”

Asked if he was motivated to face Ravena, whom he had shared three UAAP juniors titles, two UAAP seniors crowns, and a SEA Games gold medal with, the 24-year-old shared that he approached Friday’s bout the way he usually does.

“I wouldn’t say motivated [versus Kiefer], I mean, it’s just like any other game. When I play, I don’t see who’s guarding me, I just play,” said the 6-foot-2 swingman.

“I play to win all the time.”

The incident he and Ravena figured in shadowed his performance of 10 points on 50 percent shooting off the bench — the second time he had scored in double figures this season. After Friday, Pessumal is averaging 8.25 points.

“We have to sustain the level of excellence that they (starters) have. Our job is — I wouldn’t say support, but — when we get in, we should bring the level higher so when they come back, the game is easier for them,” he said.

Pessumal was then asked if he and Ravena met each other after the buzzer sounded as the two did not even shake hands after the contest. But, through a short yet strong response, the 24-year-old said that they did not.

“I wouldn’t say anything. I don’t know, after the game?,” he expressed.

“I’m a professional basketball player, I’m not here to make any friends.”

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Yeng Guiao denies using racial slur against Chris Ross

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During the post-game of the San Miguel Beermen’s victory over the NLEX Road Warriors, reigning Coach of the Year Leo Austria said that NLEX head coach Yeng Guiao had called Chris Ross the “N” word, which had caused the commotion.

According to Chris, tinawagan siya ng nigger or ganiyan,” said Austria. “I don’t know but that’s what he explained to me because I confronted Chris Ross because he’s one of the most important players in my team.

“But that’s the thing he doesn’t want to hear so nag-flare up yung bata so I cannot blame him.”

However, Guiao denied that he blurted out racial slurs against San Miguel’s Chris Ross.

“Hindi. Hindi ko tinawag na N-word. Ewan ko kung may nakarinig. Pero hindi,” clarified the fiery tactician moments after their 98-109 defeat, their third straight after starting the 2018 Philippine Cup with two straight wins.

That tussle, according to Guiao, was just filled with trash talking against each other, as he had felt the need to retaliate. In fact, Guiao was even caught by the TV camera saying “son of a bitch” towards the Filipino-American point guard.

“Daldal siya ng daldal eh. Eh sa akin naman kapag ganon, siguro respeto nalang. Lumayo ka nalang tutal mananalo naman na kayo,” he said. “I didn’t understand what he was saying, what he was talking about.

“Nakipagtrash-talking din ako sa kanya.”

Furthermore, the 58-year-old was also caught by the cameras flipping the bird — in one quick motion — also directed at Ross.

“Oo. Kasama na rin yun.

“Pero ano naman eh, it’s part of, siguro, psychological warfare. Malakas din siya mang-asar. Hindi lang naman sa amin. Everytime naman na mga ganoong skirmishes, he also knows what he’s capable of,” the seven-time champion coach furthered.

But more than this scuffle, it has been a stressful time for Guiao and the Road Warriors. They have now gone down to 2-3 in the team standings, and the mentor sees an urgent need to end this slump immediately.

“We have to arrest it very soon. Ang susunod na laro namin ay versus Rain or Shine sa Friday. So we need to go back to 50 percent win-loss level para at least may chance ka na maka-playoffs. That’s going to be a crucial game for us,” he stressed.

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Kiefer Ravena shocked with Von Pessumal’s shove: ‘I did not expect that at all’

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Kiefer Ravena and Von Pessumal have been teammates ever since they were in high school, winning three UAAP juniors crowns together. They won two championships together in the seniors level and even played together in Gilas. They were inseparable.

Friday evening however, they were playing for separate camps.

Ravena admitted that he never expected a shove to come from Pessumal during the NLEX Road Warriors’ clash with San Miguel Beermen.

In an off-ball situation, Pessumal charged at Ravena, sending the rookie down to the floor with 9:50 remaining in the final frame. He was then whistled for an unsportsmanlike foul, and Ravena sank one from the line.

“I did not expect that at all,” admitted Ravena after the match in which they lost, 98-109 — their third straight defeat after a 2-0 start. “But hopefully Von doesn’t take it personal.

“I’m just doing my job. They won the game.”

Ravena insisted that there wasn’t any physicality between him and Pessumal prior to that, but he thinks that his former Gilas teammate may have gotten irked by his staredown after blocking him on a fastbreak play early in the fourth.

“When that fastbreak happened — the same exact possession na I challenged him, I looked at him, and after that yun na yung nangyari,” said the 23-year-old guard. “But I never instigated something to provoke Von to do that.

“Probably nung tinignan ko siya.”

Moreover, the second overall pick of the 2017 PBA Rookie Draft felt that that incident “started all the commotions during the end game (laughs). Yun yung pinaka-una eh. And with that, the team got fired up and it worked for them.”

He may be right, for the game saw more skirmishes after that: from teammate Michael Miranda kicking Chris Ross to the groin, and with his head coach Yeng Guiao figuring in a heated verbal war also against Ross.

But then, Ravena made it clear that it was never a plan of his to put down somebody, especially someone like Pessumal who he sees as a brother for life.

“You know, Von and I, we go way back. Things like this hopefully don’t become too personal.

“I have no intention na ipapahiya yung tao or sasaktan mo yung tao. Wala namang ganun. Laro-laro lang,” said NLEX’s leading scorer.

It was somehow a night to remember for Ravena, but for all the wrong reasons. After Friday’s loss that sent their card to 2-3, the veteran internationalist now sees the need for him and the Road Warriors to push the panic button.

“‘Di na pwedeng sabihin palaging kailangan namin matuto eh. Pangatlong sunod na,” the second-generation cager expressed.

“Kailangan siguro naming umaksyon.”

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