From the streets to the stadium: The rugby boy of Manila
How Dan Carter, Shaun Johnson and the All Blacks are inspiring a former street kid in the Philippines to realise his rugby dreams. JONATHAN CARSON reports. Photos and Video by ALDEN WILLIAMS.
Out here, on the mad streets of Manila, they are known as "Rugby boys".
You can find them in the badlands - the parts of the city that you won't read about in a tourist guidebook - begging, stealing and rummaging through trash.
They have no home, no money or food. The street kids sniff a glue called "Rugby" from plastic bags and bottles. It gets them high and soothes the hunger pangs that come with not eating for days.
You can see them, some as young as five or six, sprawled on sidewalks, eyes glazed over, writhing with euphoria.
The chaos of the world's most densely populated city - the high-rise apartments, derelict slums, gridlocked traffic, elaborate malls and pop-up markets - goes on around them.
Like the dirty morning smog and constant tooting horns, the Rugby boys blend into the streets. Against a background of concrete, colour, people and movement, they disappear.
This is where Lito Ramirez started out. This could have been his life.
Lito Ramirez lines up his options during a training drill at McKinley Hill Stadium in Manila.
He has a big smile and bright, brown eyes that betray nothing of his struggle. He sports a trendy haircut - short on the sides, long on top - like his hero, New Zealand rugby league star Shaun Johnson.Ramirez moves like Johnson, too. He's fluid, elusive, with a sharp step and the same natural ability to slip through gaps.
The team goes through skills and strength training in the unforgiving afternoon humidity.
"Make it hurt," the coach says.
"Feel the pain. It means you're doing something."
When others are crouched over gasping for air, Ramirez digs in, pushing himself harder.
When the coach tells the players to do five one-legged push-ups, Ramirez, dripping with sweat, does 10.
"I love the training," he says.
"Actually, I learn a lot from rugby like respect, courage, discipline."
The skill level of many of the players is not high. Rugby is new here. They're still learning.
Ramirez, however, wouldn't look out of place on any club rugby field in New Zealand.
At the end of training, Philippines Rugby Football Union (PRFU) president Rick Santos gathers the team together to make a special announcement.
Santos says that Ramirez is the first homegrown Filipino to make the national sevens team, The Volcanoes. He is the first athlete born here to represent his country internationally.
"The latest superstar," Santos says.
The team cheers and applauds. A couple of the guys pat Ramirez on the back.
Ramirez smiles, bows his head, runs his fingers through his dark, black hair.
Lito Ramirez inspects the trophy cabinet at Tuloy Foundation.
Ramirez was abandoned by his parents on the streets of Quezon City, Metro Manila, when he was seven-years-old.
At least he thinks he was seven. He has no birth certificate so can't be sure.
He celebrates his birthday on March 17.
He was left with nothing but the clothes he was wearing and his older brother, Jay.
They lived on the streets together, begging for money and trawling through garbage for food to survive.
He says he would sometimes snatch bags or wallets. They would sleep on the sidewalk, or in jeepneys.
"I don't have idea about my parents because I don't remember them," Ramirez says.
"I don't know where they are."
He was on and off the street, in and out of orphanages, for several years.
At age 11, he was taken to the Tuloy Foundation, an orphanage and school for street children - the poorest of the poor.
It was here, on a dusty field in Manila, that Ramirez first saw rugby. Not the glue that kids sniff in the street but the game.
The oval ball. The thunder of bare feet on hard earth. The excitement and laughter. The competition.
"When I saw rugby, I was thinking rugby is fun sport. I want to try it," he says.Ramirez was hooked.
Tuloy Foundation pupils train as the sun sets over Manila.
The Philippines is not a place you expect to see New Zealand's national game.
Filipinos are traditionally small, slight people, unlike the musclebound brutes who typically round out a rugby team.
The country's major sports are basketball, boxing, football, billiards and volleyball.
However, rugby has been played in the country, mostly by expatriates from New Zealand, Australia and the United Kingdom, for more than 100 years.
The Philippines national team, The Volcanoes, is currently ranked 53rd in the world. Its players are low key celebrities, appearing on billboards and in television ads promoting breakfast oats and underwear.
Most Volcanoes players are living and playing rugby in other countries and fly into the Philippines for training and tournaments.
Rugby has only been promoted at grassroots level for the past 15 years.
At 170cm Lito Ramirez is short compared to his team mates.
Ramirez didn't know what to do when he first played rugby at Tuloy, aged 13.
He had played basketball and football, but this new game was foreign to him.
"I just only kick," Ramirez says in English, his second language.
"Running, running. I did not know the rules."
Tuloy Foundation founder Father Rocky Evangelista says he resisted letting the boys play rugby for years.
Rugby was seen as "hurting one another, pushing one another, tearing down one another, banging heads with one another".
He says many of the boys had stunted growth, caused by malnutrition, and were "too small" for rugby.
Reluctantly, he allowed touch rugby.
"Sports is something we very deliberately use to educate the children," Father Rocky says.
"To me they are more important than the classroom learning because life is a game, life's a performance, life is a fight."
The boys were naturally fast and agile from years of running in the streets and from the police.
Ramirez, in particular, showed promise, Father Rocky says. He was quick, strong, brave, determined.
Ramirez and the boys at Tuloy learned how to play rugby by watching videos of their favourite players on Youtube.
They would load up highlights of Johnson, Benji Marshall and All Black Dan Carter and try to copy what they did, how they moved.
Ramirez says the All Blacks are his heroes and Carter is his favourite player.
"They're good, I want to meet them," he says.
"That's where I learn. I'm trying to copy them, their step and their skills."
The boys didn't have top coaches, gear, facilities or even a dedicated patch of grass to practice on, but by watching these videos, they were learning from the best.
Ramirez and the Tuloy boys also learned the All Black haka from Youtube. They perform it with wide eyes, tongues clenched between teeth, war cries and pride.
Before long, the Tuloy boys were beating teams from across Manila and the Philippines, including teams from the international schools.
Ramirez was selected to represent the Philippines in the national under-16 team and then the under-18s.
However, he and others wanted to play rugby like they had seen on Youtube. They wanted to tackle.
Tuloy Foundation rugby training.
After leaving Tuloy in 2012, Ramirez and a few others from Tuloy joined Mavericks Rugby Club, set up by New Zealander Bill Brown in 2011.
New Zealanders are involved at every level of rugby in the Philippines. Self-made millionaire Steve Payne is on the PRFU board. Former All Black Frano Botica is the new Volcanoes sevens coach. Chris Holder, of Leighton Contractors, has sponsored the rugby programme at Tuloy.
Brown, the high school principal at International School Manila, says he saw a need for a rugby programme outside of school.
At the time there were two other clubs - the Nomads, which had been around for 100 years, and the Alabang Eagles. Both predominantly catered to expatriates.
"From the get go, Mavericks Rugby Club, as it was called, really promoted the Philippine game from a grassroots level," Brown says.
"The trouble was the lack of coaching and the lack of facilities, which is the big thing here. If you have a spare piece of grass here in Manila these days a condominium is built on it. To protect a field for a rugby field is really hard.
"We found a local school and we trained on a Sunday."
It was the only time available as most Filipinos were at church.
"That became our religion, Sunday rugby."
Brown says the Tuloy boys played tackle rugby with pace and flair, often running rings around bigger, stronger players.
But being small was also a weakness. Ramirez has been knocked out cold in a tackle on at least two occasions.
Brown recalls a conversation he had while giving Ramirez a lift home one Sunday after training.
"I said: 'Lito you're really fast, you're really sharp, you've got great steps, but you're so small, you need to bulk up a little bit, what are you doing at home?
"He said: 'Don't worry coach, I've made my own weight set and I've got some old car tyres.' So he had basically, in the street, decided how to work out."
Brown then asked him what he was eating.
"What are you putting into the engine?
"He said: 'That's OK coach I have one, sometimes two meals of rice a day.' Plain rice, no other protein or anything else to go in there. No fish, no meat. So that was when I realised that it was going to be tough to ever really grow rugby in the Philippines."
But Ramirez, undeterred by facing more powerful opponents, continued to impress on the rugby field.
He made the national men's development squad in 2014 and won a gold medal at the 2015 Philippine National Games.
In July, 2015, he was selected to play for the Volcanoes sevens team in the Asian sevens qualifying tournament for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
It was a big deal and made headlines across the Philippines.
Only a small number of homegrown Filipinos have played for the Volcanoes, but Ramirez is the first to come from the grassroots development programme and to play in the highest division of the Asian Rugby Championship.
It was New Zealander Geoff Alley, then head coach of the Volcanoes sevens team, who selected Ramirez.
"One of the big reasons for selecting Lito was to recognise his efforts and for him to be the flagbearer for all local Filipino players," Alley says.
A former Waikato and New Zealand sevens player, Alley was recruited by the PRFU as head coach in June, 2014. A year later, the team won the gold medal at the South East Asian games in Singapore.
Alley says Ramirez "fully deserved his selection" for the Volcanoes sevens team.
"Lito is a very special player and a very special person. He is a humble young man and is very appreciative of the opportunity that rugby has given him. This gives him a hunger and desire that is hard to coach," he says.
"He is only a lightweight but he throws his body around like someone twice his size."
Ramirez says it was a dream come true to play for the Volcanoes.
"I'm proud for myself because plenty of Filipinos play rugby and I'm the one who's selected in the team. I didn't expect that. I just want to play rugby, that's it."
He says the Volcanoes had training three times a day in preparation for the Olympic qualifying tournament.
For the first time in his life, Ramirez had access to quality coaching, gym equipment and, most importantly, food.
"They always give me chicken. I eat more rice."
In November last year, Ramirez flew to Hong Kong with the Volcanoes.
He remembers walking into Hong Kong Stadium, the 40,000 capacity venue that hosted a Bledisloe Cup match between New Zealand and Australia in 2008.
"I was shocked. I was so amazed. I haven't seen this in my whole life, the stadium like that. Then I was so nervous that time."
On the first day of the tournament, Alley sends Ramirez onto the field in a game against Iran.
In the dying seconds and with the game already won for the Volcanoes - they would finish seventh in the tournament out of 10 teams - Australia-based player Harrison Blake breaks through centre field from behind his own 22-metre line.
Moments after the final hooter sounds, he's pulled down in a tackle about 15 metres from the tryline. Blake flicks the ball free and Ramirez - wearing a grey headgear and the number 6 on his jersey - scoops it up.
He runs on the blind side, evading a desperate tackle attempt, and scores between the posts.
His teammates swarm him with hugs and he emerges with a wide, bright smile.
"I felt this is for my country," Ramirez says. "I was so happy. I'm almost crying that time, but it's OK. They were tears of joy."
Lito Ramirez in his Manila neighbourhood.
For Ramirez, rugby is more than a game. It is an opportunity, a way out. A path to a better life.
His story is like that of fellow Filipino Manny Pacquiao, who lived in the streets selling donuts to survive before he started boxing and, quite literally, fought his way to 10 world titles in five weight divisions - from poverty to fame and fortune.
Ramirez's story is not one of rags to riches, but rugby has secured him a job as a development officer for the PRFU. He's paid about 15,000 pesos (NZD$476) a month to coach rugby in schools and universities.
Brown says the pay's "peanuts" but it means Ramirez can rent a house in Muntinlupa City. His lifelong friend and Mavericks teammate, Jayson Fabon, lives there with him. It's a small two-storey unit with a kitchen, bathroom and loft upstairs for sleeping.
Lito Ramirez's close friend Jayson Fabon on the ball during training.
In the windowsill downstairs Ramirez keeps some of his rugby trophies and memorabilia next to a glow-in-the dark crucifix.
It's a long way from where he was abandoned by his parents close to 15 years ago. It's a life he has built for himself thanks in part to the sport he loves.
"There's that classic sporting story," Brown says.
"It's been played out in other countries, whether it's on the streets of Brazil with a football player, whether it's a black basketball player on the streets of the Bronx - here's a great story.
"And when you understand where these guys have come from and where there families are or aren't, and to think that these guys have got a future in the game or rugby, either as a professional player, coach, development officer, then that's one person that is not on the streets and not sniffing glue.
*The journalists travelled to Manila with support from the Asia New Zealand Foundation
- Sunday Star Times