Overlooked Cyprus national rugby XV keep on quietly winning
Most Cypriots are blissfully unaware, but their national rugby XV has notched 21 wins in a row, thanks largely to former expatriates and foreign soldiers on the football-mad island.
A crowd of fewer than 500 turned up late last month in the coastal resort of Paphos to watch a team nicknamed the “Moufflons” beat Austria 22-8, in a somewhat disorganised but enthusiastic head-to-head at the less-lofty levels of world rugby.
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 United Nations’ peacekeeping force on the divided 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 former 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, despite ill-fitting shirts, Cyprus romped to a 39-3 victory.
The Moufflons, named after a native wild sheep, have not looked back since, fighting the tide on an island where football is by the far the most popular sport and has a fanatical support base.
In 26 international games– albeit never against any giants in the world of rugger – they have suffered a single loss, in 2008 against Israel.
“We have good players, experienced,” said Tony Thoma, 36, the hooker and captain. “We are very close together. We’ve got that bond. Everyone is welcome, we give everyone a chance.”
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 figure in the European nations championship and since 2008 have been promoted a division every season on the back of their successful run.
The team now tops division 2C, ahead of Hungary, Slovenia, Bulgaria and Austria, and have their sights set for next year on climbing to 2B, which currently includes Israel, Lithuania, Andorra, Denmark and Serbia.
But they were not in the running for the 2015 World Cup qualifiers, a spot that was taken by Slovenia, who were eliminated by Luxembourg, a team the Moufflons crushed twice in 2011.
Under the rules of the International Rugby Board, the 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.
In IRB play, the record run of international victories is held by Lithuania, who won 18 straight successes between 2006 and 2010in division 2A.
At the 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, in order o move forward, must develop beyond the circle of expats – a tall order in a country where the very existence of the Moufflons has mostly been ignored.
The federation receives an annual subsidy of €30,000 (Dh151,526), the cost of a match abroad.
The organisation is desperate for sponsors in recession-hit Cyprus, but has little to offer recruits except a passion for the game.
“A lot of players have improved so much,” Thoma said. “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.”
Yannis Loizias, 18, who plays centre 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 line-up, he made his debut towards the end of the match against Austria.
“I was so excited. I’ve experienced a lot of things with rugby. I’ve trained a lot. And that’s the highest” to play for your country, Nikolaidis said.
Marcus Holden, 24, a fullback who plays professional rugby in France, says having represented Cyprus for the past five years was “the biggest honour”.
“This is our strength, every player will say the same,” he said. “It is a passion. From the national anthem to our crazy war cry at the end.”
Holden concedes the unbeaten run has to end as the Moufflons climb the divisions towards the higher echelons of international rugby.
“It’s gonna be completely different,” he said. “But until then, I’m happy to be in a world record.”