The Philippines Eagles finally achieved the ultimate goal of becoming the Premiers of Australia Rules in Asia by winning the AFL Asia – Asian Championships held in Ho chi Minh City, Vietnam last weekend. Something that has been hard work and commitment from so many people over the years. Derek Ackary, Co-founder of the Philippine Australian Football League reflects on the biggest day in the PAFL history in his own words…
“AFL Asia Asian Championships Division One had us playing three round robin games. If we finished in the top four, we would get to play a semi and if we were good enough, the grand final.
First of all we played Hong Kong (reigning Champions). HK were down a couple of players due to some poor wedding planning, injury, and their spiritual leader having decided living in England was a better option than Asia (Dom Dunn). We knew we weren’t quite as well-oiled as the HK boys, but felt that if we were at least able to focus on the things we could control (bumps, tackles, pressure etc), we were in with a chance. However, the class of HK, as expected, enabled them to keep us at bay and they ran out hard earned victors by 9 points (courtesy of a Joe the Goose over the top with about 20 seconds to go). Final score Hong Kong 4.5 (29) to Philippines 3.2 (20).
Second game we played Singapore. Just to put the enormity of the situation we faced into perspective, having lost the first game to HK, there have been 16 previous Asian Championships played and HK and Singapore have won 11 between them (6 and 5 respectively), with only two other teams tasting glory – Jakarta (Indonesian) Bintangs in 2002, and in a strange twist, Dubai won three in a row from 2008-10 and haven’t been invited back. So the Philippines had to not only win the next two round robin games to ensure they made it at least to semis, if we were to go all the way, we needed to win the next four games in a row if we were to become only the fifth team in history to win the Asian Champs. Could we do it? Read on and find out…
Singapore had won their first game quite comfortably against the home team Vietnam by 16 points which in a 24 minute game of two halves, is about as convincing as it gets. Having been such a strong force in the Asian Champs over the years, we knew we had to be switched on and once again, focus on the things we could control regardless of where the ball might be. With Winner copping a rocket from coach Tezza for his undisciplined play in being sent off against HK, the team was primed to perform a team style of play and stick to the plans we have been practicing all year. Well, it couldn’t have worked out any better for us as not only were we able to stand up to Singapore, we turned defense into strong attack. Having learnt from our loss to HK in the first game, we took control of the entire game running out fairly convincing winners by 15 points. The pressure we applied was made clear by the fact we had the same amount of scoring shots as Singapore, but used the ball better under pressure with every player playing their role. Final score: Philippines 4.2 (26) to Singapore 1.5 (11).
Next game was against the home team, Vietnam, who only 18 months ago, won the Manila Cup by beating us narrowly in the final. We knew that if we could knock them off, and claim some retribution for the 2015 Manila Cup Final defeat in the process, we were virtually guaranteed of making the semis. No talk of the grand final or even the semis at this point – we just kept sticking to all the clichés like “taking it one game at a time” and “just play every ball on its merits” – shit, sorry, that’s cricket. Anyway, we knew Vietnam would come out firing and absolutely had to win having drawn against Jakarta in controversial circumstances in their previous game, after having dropped their first game against Singapore. If they could knock us off, with a draw under their belt, they would skip half a game ahead and sneak into the semis.
The strategy was simple – it was just a matter if we could execute. As happy as we were to knock off one the favourites in the previous game, and having taken it up to the reigning Champs in our first game, we were confident, but we were also very focused on the team things. Vietnam came at us hard, but as the game progressed, one felt they had really given it so much in the first couple of games, they might have just run out of steam when we applied pressure. With the sun poking its head through the clouds, the conditions were stifling, but we stuck to our guns and were able to successfully replicate the game style we displayed against Singapore, and with accurate kicking, ran out comfortable winners by 16 points. Final score: Philippines 5.3 (33) to Vietnam 2.5 (17).
That brought us to the semi against Hong Kong, who were keen to go back to back, having won 3 of the last 4 Asian Championships. The Dragons and the Eagles have a mutual respect and admiration (some call it man love) for each other and it’s fair to say, and we wouldn’t be the only team in Asia to say this, the Dragons are a true benchmark with how they go about their business and we have learnt a lot from them over the years, with our Manila Cup battles over the last 9 years being a highlight. Having toured to HK in August for a tri-series that included Singapore, we knew the areas we needed to improve on to go all the way, and it started with this do or die match against these Asian Champs legends.
Despite having dropped our first game against the Dragons, we were not deterred. We had a second chance and weren’t gonna let this slip. We knew exactly what we had to do and knew that if we were able to execute, we could knock them over. Enter Sauce – the big Dragons forward – who kicked the first three goals of the match within the first two minutes. It would be fair to say, as the water boy for the day, and feeling slightly helpless about being able to do anything in terms of play, my sphincter was extremely tight by this stage. However, the goals had come fairly easily and I felt that if we could steady the ship, the goals would come. Just like the first game, we didn’t lay down and were able to absorb the pressure and managed to score the next couple of goals and all of a sudden, the sphincter had naturally loosened sufficiently enough for me to start running water again.
Despite the rain starting to come down, we began hitting our targets and control the flow of play and amazingly, had fought our way back to a 3 point lead at half time. However, the sphincter muscle was still rather tense, as there was still a lot of work to be done to keep the reigning Champs at bay. In scrappy conditions as a result of the rain, it became a classic 1980s Melbourne winter slugfest as both teams scrapped and scraped to get an advantage. Come the final siren, it was the Eagles who were triumphant by 10 points. Final score: Philippines 8.4 (52) to Hong Kong 7.0 (42). Where were Bowski’s nipples when I needed a good tweak! Commiserations to Winesy Gary Wines, the Dragons stalwart coach who was coaching his last Dragons tournament. As much as we wanted to see him win, we didn’t want it cancelling our Asian Champs aspirations.
So here we were, for the second time in our 13 year history, and second time in four years, in the final of the Asian Champs. As he had done all day, and all year for that matter, coach Tez was injecting just enough confidence into the team to get them high, but not make them OD. Even then, we still weren’t talking about winning the match, we were just trying to stay focused on the simple things, every contest, every possession, and we knew if we did that, the rest would flow from there. It was the fifth game of the day. Everyone was feeling it. It was absolutely pissing down rain. It was the biggest challenge we had ever faced, but we were quietly confident.
We started off strong and although we arguably controlled the first half, we didn’t quite have the lead we had worked so hard for in a classical wet weather slugfest. Both teams gave it their all and with the conditions, any score was an absolute premium. I can’t remember the half time score, but we might have just led marginally by a kick or less or vice versa. However, the start of the second half saw Singapore kick a behind followed by a goal to hit the front and really get the ole sphincter contracting again. Luckily this time, I had handed the water bottles over to people more capable so I could focus on my mid-core relaxation techniques. With our star ruckman starting to cramp up and bringing himself off the ground, the odds were stacked against us as the rain continued to pelt down. Then all of a sudden, our ever reliable half back, and arguably player of the tournament, Wiessy, takes a huge grab at CHF. I don’t think anyone really gave a shit that he was at the wrong end of the ground, and he made everyone feel vindicated as he slotted a great goal under the conditions from about 70 metr….sorry, about 30 metres out. All of a sudden, we knew we were one kick away from victory and the boys were fired up!
More scrappy and desperate play followed with both teams giving it all they could muster until a forward entry into our forward line saw club stalwart Houla take a strong grab, but as the video replay showed, a slightly late and high come-from-behind spoil led to a 25 metre penalty which meant the kick was taken right on the goal line and, BANG! Eagles up by five points with about 1min 30 secs to go, and the relaxation techniques that had been employed earlier were re-introduced.
Singapore won the ball from the wing after the bounce and surged forward but we were able to intercept their forward entry and maintain possession whilst running the clock down. And then it happened, the moment we had been working so hard towards since April (and a bender in 2003), the blood, the sweat, the tears, the selfies at the gym, the late nights, the early mornings, the buffet at Vikings – it all came together at this one moment as the place erupted! Grown men crying like babies, exhausted players collapsing on the flooded playing surface in the pouring rain like a scene from a war movie, soft cocks running around in plastic poncho style rain wear – it didn’t matter, it was a surreal moment that will never be forgotten by all those fortunate enough to experience it. The Philippine Eagles very first Asian Championships title! Wow wee! This was like the Bulldogs winning the AFL Grand Final, the underdogs, with all the odds against them, pulling through to win. Final score: Philippines 3.2 (20) to Singapore 2.3 (15).
THE REST IS HISTORY!!!!!
Catster and Zorba – this is for you also. RIP. Never forgotten.
And Winner Santos – wins player of the tournament! It just doesn’t get any better!”
Written by Derek Ackary – PAFL Co-Founder