Rugby: Cyprus novices eye win record

By Andrew Alderson

Cyprus after beating Greece. Photo / Stavros Tum
Cyprus after beating Greece. Photo / Stavros Tum

In a far eastern corner of the Mediterranean Sea, a small group of rugby players breathed a sigh of relief on October 20. It came when the All Blacks and Wallabies drew 18-18, ending New Zealand's consecutive winning streak at 16, two shy of Lithuania's international record of 18.

The military barracks, expatriate communities and civilian rugby clubs of Cyprus could afford a brief whoop of delight. It leaves their national rugby team in line to break the record. The Mouflons - named after a horned sheep common to the region - have 15 straight wins. They could secure the record by late April with matches scheduled against Austria, Slovenia, Bulgaria and Hungary.

Cyprus' record is impressive considering they only played their first international on March 24, 2007; a 39-3 spanking of Greece. They have lost once in 20 matches, going down to Israel four years ago. Their squad is selected from a group of fewer than 70 eligible players cobbled together from as many as nine European countries, although more than 50 per cent are generally based in Cyprus at any one time.

They play in the European Nations Cup, division 2C. That does not translate to a lack of passion for a fledgling game faced with the might of football in the region. The team jersey features a shield and the motto "either with this or on this" - a reference to their Spartan heritage where dead soldiers would be carried back on their shields. To return without a shield indicated desertion and cowardice.

Welshman Paul Shanks is the Mouflons coach. He has been in the British air force for 29 years, with a portion of that based in Cyprus (the southern Greek state, recognised by the United Nations, as opposed to the Turkish north, recognised by Turkey).

Shanks has been with the team since that first match, originally as assistant coach. Now he flies to Cyprus from his Buckinghamshire base for home games and directly to wherever they play in Europe to organise the team a day or two before away fixtures.

Shanks says an "on-island" coach has been appointed in his absence who can monitor the form of players in the six-team national league.

"It's very much a football-oriented society in Cyprus and we struggle to attract attention," says Shanks. "The record is secondary to getting the game recognised, although I must admit I was frantically trying to get updated scores when that All Blacks-Wallabies test was on. My son was in the car and I was urging him to refresh his i-Phone every couple of minutes."

- Herald on Sunday

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