All you need to know about Cyprus rugby
World Rugby ranking: n/a – affiliated to Rugby Europe, but not a full member of World Rugby
Playing record (official Tests): P40 W30 L10
Playing numbers: 100 (men, est), 50 (youth, est)
Rugby Europe division 2017/18:
Conference 2 South: Austria, Serbia, Slovenia, Slovakia
Results in 2016/17 campaign (Rugby Europe Conference 1 South):
Malta 31-3 Cyprus
Cyprus 28-38 Israel
Andorra 15-14 Cyprus
Cyprus 27-29 Croatia
2016/17 league position: 5th
Who has the longest unbeaten run in international rugby? England? New Zealand? Nope, it's Cyprus. While the best two rugby nations on the planet managed a paltry 18 games unbeaten, Cyprus went an incredible 24 matches without defeat.
The run began simply enough, with a straight-forward but tough 37-3 win over the uncompromising Azerbaijan in Baku. Few predicted that six years and 23 games later, the final whistle would go after a 30-10 victory against Andorra in Paphos and they would be celebrating a 24th consecutive win.
Record breakers ever since they’d surpassed Lithuania’s previous high of 17, half a dozen games before, the run was eventually brought to an end in Riga by Latvia (39-20) a fortnight after the Andorra win.
Not bad for a side that had only played five internationals before the sequence began. Cyprus, or The Moufflons as they're also known (it's a kind of horned sheep), only started playing international rugby in 2007 – 18 months before that win in Baku. “The run was truly remarkable, six years undefeated in Europe,” says Alex McCowan, who doubles up as the Cyprus Rugby Union media officer and chairman of Nicosia Barbarians rugby club. “I think it was a bit of a joke when we started, but after being admitted to the lowest level of European rugby, each year we just kept on winning and getting promoted – it went on and on.”
Cyprus (orange and white) in action. Photo: Stephen Nicolaou
Ironically, Cyprus only really received international acclaim last year when first the All Blacks and then England failed to get past 18 consecutive wins. With everyone hailing 18 as the magic number set by the All Blacks, it was a New Zealand journalist who pointed out that both sides had some way to go to be record-breakers just yet. “What is tragic about the whole run is that we’ve had lots of press, but it’s mostly been outside of Cyprus, in England, New Zealand and South Africa – it was a journalist in Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand who first brought our record to everyone’s attention,” explains McCowan. “Cyprus is football mad, so we just don’t get much coverage in the papers. Although we have had some televised games – I’ve even been to the tavernas where they’ve been showing live games to explain it in person to the locals.”
The British held the island from 1870 and the military brought their sports with them – cricket, rugby and football
Part of the British Empire until it gained independence in 1960, with the British military came British sports. “The British held the island from 1870 and the military brought their sports with them – cricket, rugby and football,” explains McCowan. “Then, after independence, they started their own league, it was a joint league with the services.”
Although largely made up of sides from the forces, the league was strong with up to 10 teams at its peak. “We started a Paphos side in about 2004 and we were playing on odd bits of lawn here and there as the best pitches were still in the military zone,” continues McCowan. “We had a strong squad helped by some South African Cypriots and we soon started to dominate the league. That Paphos side was and still is the backbone of the international side.”
Changes in the rulebook from rugby’s governing body forced Cyprus rugby to go it alone and set up their own league under their own jurisdiction, leaving just the three Cypriot clubs: Paphos Tigers, Limassol Crusaders and Nicosia Barbarians.
Cyprus are aiming for promotion this season. Photo: Stephen Nicolaou
Today, with limited local opposition, the season’s fixture list comprises the sides playing each other twice coupled with friendlies against the various military sides that visit the island.
Every developing rugby nation has its own unique challenges, and Cyprus is no different. “We have conscription in Cyprus, so we lose every player at the age of 18 when they go into military service,” says McCowan. “They go in to the army, then to university, and so we basically lose them for five years, which makes it difficult to develop them.”
A more common challenge they share with their European rugby rivals is funding. “I think we’re the only international team that has to pay its own way for away games, we get just €15,000 a year from the Government which doesn’t even cover the average away trip, which is about €20,000.”
It’s to their credit that Cyprus have proved to be so competitive. Even when they have barely enough players to field a side, they’ve managed to defy the odds. “Two years ago we had to send a squad of just nine players to a European sevens event in Krakow,” recalls McCowan. “We reached the semi-final but our fullback got concussed and was replaced by our coach – who then broke his arm in two places. We still made it to the final though, but we lost to Poland.”
We do call on the diaspora... ... the likes of Chris Dicomidis at Cardiff Blues, Jonathan Pettemerides who played for Bath and Andrew Binikos who was captain of Currie
The secret to this success? “They are absolutely dedicated,” McCowan says of the Cypriot rugby players, “Once they get into it and understand what a great game it is, they love it. It’s the complete opposite of what they’re used to in football – we had one football side enter a beach rugby tournament and the referee penalised them for their over-the-top celebrations.”
Another helping hand in the Cypriot success has been the lengthy reach of the people. “We do call on the diaspora,” says McCowan. “We have called upon the likes of Chris Dicomidis at Cardiff Blues, Jonathan Pettemerides who played for Bath and Andrew Binikos who was captain of Currie (and coaches Natal Sharks) as well as others who’ve played for semi professional sides or top universities.
“But as you can imagine it’s still quite hard to get a side like Cardiff Blues to release a player for a game against Lithuania. Especially when everyone is paying their own way.”
The Cypriot side that made the record books was, however, made up of local players. “We established the winning habit long before we attracted players from overseas,” says McCowan. “But the magic has faded a bit.”
Priority now is on the next generation. “We’re now focusing on the towns and academies to build Cyprus rugby,” states McCowan, “because we need to build a stronger future and bring kids up with rugby which means getting rugby into state schools. We’re running national tag competitions and also trying to bring in new coaches to the game.”
Immediate focus turns to Rugby Europe Conference South 2, a division they’ve found themselves in following relegation last term. “Serbia is the only unknown in the group,” admits McCowan. “But they can’t be any stronger than the others, and we’ve beaten all of them. I think we were very unlucky to go down and we just missed key players at key times.”
Can they win the group? “I think we will,” says of a confident McCowan. “We’re certainly capable and, on form, I think we should.”
Coming from a side that once went 24 games unbeaten, you’d be a brave person to bet against them.
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