QRL.com.au correspondent Wayne 'Ticker' Heming reports exclusively this week from the Philippines.

 

If you have any doubts about the Philippines' determination to one day qualify for a Rugby League World Cup, consider what they've already overcome to get to this year's Emerging Nations World Championship.

The Emerging Nations tournament is designed for second and third-tier countries and will be held in western Sydney from late September to mid October.

The first rugby league competition in the Philippines, which involved four teams, was only launched in October 16, 2016.

It was the culmination of several years' work, primarily by five passionate men – Greg Cross, Michael Holt, Mark De Ubago, Rick Hartley and Eric Elefante - after whom the domestic premiership is named.

The quintet held a private meeting at a pub in The Rocks in Sydney in January 2012 to pioneer the game.

A week later, the same five men, along with international development officer Tas Baitieri, and former head coach Clayton Watene, formed a committee known as the Philippines Rugby League (PRL), sincere-named the Philippines National Rugby League (PNRL).

However, it wasn't until 2016 that Filipino fans had a competition to follow and teams to support.

And even then, it was not without major dramas.

The history-making venue, the Albay Sports Complex at the Bicol University in Legazpi City, which was to host the very first official game of rugby league, sat directly in the path of Typhoon Karen as more than 50 players and officials made the 13-hour bus trek from Manila.

One game was completed, but the other was called off at halftime because of the atrocious conditions, before being resumed the following day after Karen blew through.

The Manila Storm's Michael Tome Jnr claimed his place in history scoring the first ever competition try and rugby league was up and running, although, against massive odds.

To get an idea of just how difficult it is for the PNRL, consider the obstacles they are up against.

They have no major sponsor. Playing fields are scarce. The Government, as yet, gives them no financial support and players play for pride, nothing else.

As current Tamaraw player and Vice President of the PNRL Paul Sheedy points out, the game needs all the help it can get to continue to attract players and gain ground on rugby union.

Union has the backing of both the Philippines Government and World Rugby.

Sheedy, whose family is from Baguio, a mountain district several hours north of Manila, was raised in Brisbane, played junior footy for Wests Mitchelton Panthers and now lives on the Gold Coast.

During his professional career he spent time with both the Melbourne Storm club and the NSW Waratahs, and these days still trots around in the Gold Coast Rugby League.

Having spent some of his youth growing up in the Philippines, he has great appreciation of the struggles of Filipino children.

"We need to expand and find more fields and more players," Sheedy told QRL.com.

"But our biggest hurdle is getting recognition from the government.

"We are the highest-ranked sporting organisation in the country.

"Government recognition and aid would help us introduce rugby league to schools, orphanages and universities.

"At the moment, we raise what funds we can through hard work and raffles and have just started selling merchandise."

With a population four times greater than Australia, Sheedy believes, with more help, rugby league can infiltrate the vast talent and develop rapidly.

While he concedes rugby union has a march on league in the Philippines, he is confident the gap can be cut significantly with more assistance and government backing.

"The Philippines Rugby Union are already established, they have people on the ground and the backing they get from World Rugby makes it difficult for us at the moment," he said

"(But) they know we are here, they consider us a serious threat, even though we want to co-exist."

The arrival on the NRL scene of giant Brisbane teenager Payne Haas, the 10th player with Filipino ancestry to appear in the NRL, has given the game a big shot in the arm.

The PNRL Facebook page has been swamped with posts after he recently debuted for the Broncos.

Sheedy is hoping the Broncos will allow Haas to play for the Tamaraws in the Emerging Nations Cup later this year.

"Payne represented the Philippines Under 16s in 2015 and we have been waiting a long time for him to pull on a Tamaraws jumper again," said Sheedy.

"We will of course be asking him, but we understand Broncos commitments come first.

"There is no doubt his presence for the Tamaraws would be enormous, not just for the PNRL but for rugby league in Asia and for developing the game around the world."

Sheedy admitted he was very disappointed with the lack of support given to the game by former NRL players with Filipino heritage.

"We have now had 10 players, if you include young Haas, who have played NRL," he said.

"I know what it was like growing up (here) in the 90s, trying to fit into a not-so multi-national country.

"To me, it is disappointing some other past NRL players have not reached out to help with their bigger personalities, because a dollar can go a long way in the Philippines."

The 10 players with Filipino ancestry who have played first grade are: Gerry De La Cruz, Ben Gonzales, Paul Sheedy, Joven Clarke, Craig Wing, Kevin Gordon, Matt Srama, Andrew Everingham, Shane Gray, Almer Salvilla (Super League) and now Haas.

Several others including Rez Philipps and Luke Srama have graced the Intrust Super Cup.

The Emerging Nations World Championship provides minnows like the Philippines, Thailand, Niue, Vanuatu, Greece and Latvia the opportunity to continue to develop the game and experience international competition.

For a developing nation like the Philippines, which faces mountainous obstacles just to run a five-team national competition, it's a stepping-stone towards international recognition and a reward for its players to represent their country.

The Philippines were the biggest rankings improvers last year, jumping from number 34 to be 24 in the world.

They have won eight of their 12 international matches (13-a-side) since 2012.

They are already two-time Asian champions, having posted massive wins over Thailand, while their biggest international victory was a 114-0 win over the Latin Heat at Runaway Bay in 2014, the debut for the Latin Americans.

While the Tamaraws' goal is to contest a World Cup against the world heavyweights, Sheedy admits the ideal dream is to see a Filipino-born and raised player run out in the NRL competition one day.