RUGBY IN ITS INFANCY
“I didn’t even know Cyprus had a rugby team” is the immediate response most people give me when I tell them what I do in my spare time.
During an assignment to Cyprus in 2007, I was lucky enough to be offered the chance to assist in coaching the Cyprus National Rugby team (known as the Moufflons – after the country’s national animal, the wild mountain sheep) in their first ever fixture against Greece. This all came about following a chance conversation with a fellow serviceman, who was assisting the team at the time, the topic came on to rugby coaching and one thing led to another and I found myself helping them to a 39-3 victory; it was to be the start of something very exciting!
Fast forward 4 years and I now find myself as Head Coach of the Moufflons, having won 16 out of 17 matches, with a current winning streak of 12 games. Like all fledgling teams, we had to start at the bottom and we currently compete in FIRA AER Division 2D, having been promoted from Division 3 last season. Our league features fellow minnows, Greece, Finland, Bulgaria and Luxembourg. We are into our second round of games, having beaten these sides convincingly once already, including a home win against Finland, of 70-10. This places us at the head of the table, with 3 games remaining, that may well lead to a second promotion in as many years. Along the way we have scored more tries than any other team in Europe, including the European Elite second tier of Georgia, Romania, Portugal, Spain and Russia.
With a small dedicated Committee and Management team, all based on-island, we are blessed with a number of talented players playing at Championship level in England, Scotland, Wales and France. These “stars” are reinforced with players playing at various levels, predominately in the UK, coupled with players based on-Island playing in the Cyprus League (3 civilian and 4 Service teams). Having coached at a variety of levels previously, it still amazes me to see the increase in playing capability once a player is wearing his National Shirt. Their commitment and dedication to country is reflected in the fact that many have previously paid for their own travel, as at the time, funding from the government was scarce for a sport barely recognised. In Cyprus, football is king!
We are often subject to banter from other nations, questioning the origins of our players; rest assured, the red tape involved in getting players onto the field does not allow us anything but eligible players. The IRB allows 3 basic eligibility criteria; birth, parentage (to grand parents) and residency (3 years consecutive, immediately before playing). I guess that the history of Cyprus has lent itself to a worldwide dispersed population, indeed London boasts more Cypriots than most major cities on the island. We are obviously lucky that many settled in traditionally strong rugby-playing countries – UK, South Africa and Australia.
Great job some of you may be thinking, with frequent visits to the Island? Well yes, it does have its perks, with a certain amount of travel involved to the countries mentioned previously, as well as Bosnia, Monaco, Azerbaijan (teams in the lower league). However, I do spend a reasonable amount of my own time co-ordinating players, travel and training (due to the large number of players based in the UK, I host UK training throughout the season, particularly in preparation for a forthcoming fixture). More recently, I have been assisting the committee in our bid to be accepted as Members of the International Rugby Board. There is a 3-page pathway document that requires adherence prior to application and we are currently working very hard to ensure that we comply to its requirements.
That said, exciting times ahead, and being involved in an emerging rugby nation that has come such a long way in 4 years, has its rewards.