Rugby 'world record' unsung in Cyprus

Source:AFP-Global Times Published: 2013-12-13 5:03:02

Cyprus' national rugby union team player Marko Mladenovic catches the ball in a line-out during their European Nations Cup match against Austria on November 30 at the Pafiako Stadium in the coastal resort of Paphos, Cyprus. Photo: CFP

Cyprus' national rugby union team player Marko Mladenovic catches the ball in a line-out during their European Nations Cup match against Austria on November 30 at the Pafiako Stadium in the coastal resort of Paphos, Cyprus. Photo: CFP

Most Cypriots are blissfully­ unaware of it but their national­ rugby XV has notched up a 21st straight triumph, thanks largely to former expats and foreign soldiers on the soccer-mad island.

A crowd of fewer than 500 turned up at the end of November in the coastal resort of Paphos to watch the team nicknamed the "Moufflons" beat Austria 22-8 in a somewhat disorganized­ but enthusiastic head-to-head at the less lofty levels of world rugby.

And the language on the field, among the supporters and in the local pub after the international, was very much English rather than Greek, reflecting the dual culture of the participants.

Rugby union was long confined to the two British military bases and the barracks of Argentine soldiers in the UN peacekeeping force on the Mediterranean island.

Locals only came into contact with the sport about a decade ago when Greek Cypriot expatriates started returning home from South Africa in large numbers.

After starting out with beach rugby in the southern resort, the ex-South Africans in 2003 founded the Paphos Tigers, growing in strength on the back of matches against army clubs.

A year later, the Limassol Crusaders and Nicosia Barbarians were born, leading to a federation and national team being formed in coordination with Cypriots living in Britain.

The debut was a friendly against Greece in March 2007, when, strapped up in ill-fitting shirts hastily bought in a pub, Cyprus romped to victory 39-3.

Moufflons fight the tide

The Moufflons, named after a native­ wild sheep, have not looked back since, fighting the tide on an island where soccer is by far the most popular sport and has a fanatical support base.

Out of 26 internationals - albeit never against any giants in the world of rugby - they have only suffered a single loss and that was back in September 2008 against Israel.

"We have good players ..­. We are very close together. We've got that bond. Everyone is welcome, we give everyone a chance," said Tony Thoma, 36, the hooker and captain.

Because of injury, Thoma, who used to live in South Africa was speaking on the phone from England, where he works as an accountant and is also a rugby team player-coach.

Cyprus figures in the European nations championship and has since 2008 been promoted a division every season on the back of its successful run.

It now tops division 2C, ahead of Hungary, Slovenia, Bulgaria and Austria, and has its sights set for next year on climbing to 2B, which currently lists Israel, Lithuania, Andorra, Denmark and Serbia.

But it was not even in the running for the 2015 World Cup qualifiers, with the spot taken by Slovenia only to be eliminated by Luxembourg, which the Moufflons had crushed twice in 2011.

Under the rules of the Interna­tional Rugby Board (IRB), its sport's governing body, competing nations­ must have at least four local clubs, but four of the seven in the Cypriot­ league come from the British sovereign­ bases.

And for the IRB, the record run of international victories is held by Lithuania of division 2A which notched up 18 straight successes between 2006 and 2010.

At the very highest level of the sport, New Zealand's All Blacks won all 14 Tests they played this year - a first for a team from a major playing nation in the professional era.

Rugby in Cyprus, to move forward, must develop beyond the circle of ex-South Africans and expats - a tall order in a country where the media long ignored the very existence of the Moufflons.

The federation, surviving on an annual subsidy of 30,000 euros ($41,000), the cost of a match abroad, and desperate for sponsors in recession-hit Cyprus - has little to offer recruits except a passion for the game.

"A lot of players have improved so much. For a long time we always had more or less the same players. A lot of older ones are now moving on, and new ones are coming," says captain Thoma.

'The biggest honour'

Yannis Loizias, an 18-year-old who plays center for the Harlequins in London, was in the team against Slovenia in early November and scored two tries against Austria.

A convert, Panayiotis Nikolaidis, 27, works at the University of Cyprus and only discovered rugby through a friend last year.

Recruited after a training match against a British soldiers lineup, he made his debut toward the end of the match against Austria.

Marcus "Marcos" Holden, 24, a fullback who plays professional rugby in France, says having represented Cyprus for the past five years was "the biggest honor."

But Holden also admits the unbeaten run has to end as the Moufflons climb up the divisions toward the higher echelons of international rugby.

"It's gonna be completely different. But until then I'm happy to be in a world record," he says.

AFP - Global Times

Posted in: Feature, Rugby

blog comments powered by Disqus