Chris Rattue is a sports columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

The Big Read: Cyprus - still streaks ahead of the All Blacks

Cyprus players celebrate their record victory over Austria in the European Nations Cup. Photo / Getty
Cyprus players celebrate their record victory over Austria in the European Nations Cup. Photo / Getty

The All Blacks will set a rugby world record of sorts should they beat the Wallabies at Eden Park on Saturday night. But they won't hold THE record. Not yet.

Kieran Read's tier one side can make it 18 straight victories when they face 10-1 outsiders Australia.

But the real test record still belongs to real outsiders - the mighty men from Cyprus, population 1.2 million, who went on a 24-game winning run between 2008 and 2014.

Theirs' is a story of triumph that belongs in another age, another world.

"People have literally put their families on the line, wives have threatened divorces, some boys quit their jobs to play for the country," says their captain Marko Mladenovic, 25, an 86kg openside flanker raised in the coastal city of Limassol.

Speaking from Edinburgh where he lives while playing for Falkirk, Mladenovic - whose Serbian parents arrived in Cyprus seeking refuge from the war in Yugoslavia 25 years ago - reveals the other side of test rugby.

Herald archive: Cyprus novices eye win record

Mladenovic was an unremarkable 13-year-old footballer going off the rails following his parents' divorce when his mother spied a newspaper advertisement for rugby players. The game already had a natural base at British military bases retained after the 1960 treaty of independence. But a rugby-loving South African wanted to expand the game, thus the advert.

The rugby posts had mattresses tied around them

Just four years later, Mladenovic was making his test debut from the bench, away to Azerbaijan, in a "horror show" which turned out to be the first match of the 24-game streak.

"It is probably the most famous Cyprus rugby story - it was crazy," says Mladenovic, recalling the players paid $600 each to play that game.

"We had to wait two or three hours at border control to get into the country. They didn't want to issue us a visa.

"Then we found people squatting in our hotel, beggars in the reception area. We started to think, 'this is a bit strange, and not very glorious'.

There were brown stains on the sheets, some of the boys saw rats

"The rooms were really bad. There were brown stains on the sheets, some of the boys saw rats. And this is the hotel Azerbaijan rugby put forward to us. No one wanted to eat anything, in case we got sick. We had barely slept, and didn't eat on the day of the game.

"We rocked up to this ground which looked like something from a zombie film. Everyone was wearing black. The rugby posts had mattresses tied around them as protectors. This is an international rugby fixture? There were bits of grass here and there, but it was just a piece of land."

Cyprus taking in Bulgaria in win No 13. Photo / YouTube
Cyprus taking in Bulgaria in win No 13. Photo / YouTube

When a scuffle broke out, spectators made to join in. The contest was willing. One Cyprus player lost a tooth. Another suffered a broken cheekbone. A 37-3 win was secured. The record run was underway.

In a classic rags to riches contrast, the next match was in money-drenched Monaco, with a whole different class of rats. This six-year journey had a bit of everything.

It included the luckiest of wins against Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2009, when the home side's goalkicker missed four easy shots in deep snow and Cyprus escaped with an 8-6 victory.

In Latvia, the Mouflons - named after wild Cyprus sheep - ended up in the courtyard of a mental institution while searching for a practice area. Under international rules, the home side provides facilities for one training session. Dedicated Cyprus like to have two, and the players use Google maps to locate vacant land.

"We saw a bit of grass and started approaching. This guy comes up and says, 'do you know where you are? You shouldn't be here'," says Mladenovic.

Things have improved on the home front. When Cyprus entered the international arena in 2007, they were shunned by their national sports funding agency so played at the military bases, officially foreign territory. They now share a nice football stadium in Paphos, where one of the island's three rugby clubs are based. Funding has improved, but some players still offer to pay their way for away games.

Mladenovic made it all the way to Scottish premier league side Currie, and earns $130 a game for Falkirk which supplements his teacher aid wage.

"What made this possible is all we went through as a brotherhood. It hardens you up, going to Azerbaijan to play rugby," he says.

"So much has happened that you couldn't even script it. It was only something I started doing as a hobby."

Cyprus taking in Bulgaria in win No 13. Photo / YouTube
Cyprus taking in Bulgaria in win No 13. Photo / YouTube

He loves referring to Cyprus rugby "legends". The national team's glory days owed much to players like new head coach and former first five-eighths Andrew Binikos, who played for Natal. Binikos came back from two broken legs to put his body on the line for the national team again. Then there is another South African George Agathocleous, a centre who Mladenovic describes as "built to fight tigers".

But there are other home-grown successes like Mladenovic, including Fidias Efthymiou, good enough to make the Clermont Auvergne academy in France.

Cyprus have won promotion of sorts, playing in a geographically re-jigged European competition alongside Malta, Croatia, Andorra and Israel. A new generation of Cypriot players will try to emulate their predecessors, no easy task and especially when a player like giant forward Chris Dicomidis struggles to get released from his Welsh club.

Win number 13: Cyprus v Bulgaria

Like their rugby forefathers, the latest Mouflons go into battle with a Spartan war cry etched on the back of their jerseys. In a nutshell, it's better to be carried home dead on your shield than to fling it away in defeat. Since Latvia ended the golden streak with a 39-20 win in late 2014, those defeats have mounted.

But these tiny national teams remain proud in the shadows. Lithuania, who held the old record of 18-straight wins, congratulated the Wallabies in 2012 when a draw in Brisbane stopped the All Blacks two short of matching the mark. The Cyprus run ended in Latvia, and was emotionally charged.

"It was a tough day - there were a few tears and it was hard to take," admits Mladenovic, who let business studies at Bristol University lapse when Friday exams clashed with a Saturday test.

"We thought we'd get a lot more recognition for our world record and, from that point of view, it was disappointing. But if the All Blacks go on to break it, fair enough. They are the best team of the last decade by far.

"A lot of people say we don't play the top nations, but all the challenges we had to overcome, to play the way we did, means the record is a big deal for us. As cheesy as it sounds, though, the best thing was the friendships we made, the stories, the things we went through.

"I get goose bumps when I think about the journey. It's just a celebration of a great bunch of players who did really well, who overcame adversity to represent their country."

Cyprus' run of 24 straight wins

2008
Azerbaijan 37 - 3 (away)
Monaco 24 - 3 (home)

2009
Slovakia 33 - 7 (home)
Bosnia and Herzegovina 8 - 6 (away)
Monaco 44 - 5 (away)

2010
Azerbaijan 59 - 0 (home)
Bosnia and Herzegovina 15 - 0 (home)
Greece 33 - 13 (away)

2011
Bulgaria 55 - 8 (home)
Finland 70 - 10 (home)
Luxembourg 50 - 0 (away)
Luxembourg 48 - 7 (home)

2012
Bulgaria 94 - 3 (away)
Greece 72 - 5 (home)
Finland 52 - 5 (away)
Austria 54 - 20 (away)
Slovenia 49 - 8 (home)

2013
Bulgaria 79 - 10 (home)
Hungary 16 - 15 (away)
Slovenia 34 - 3 (away)
Austria 22 - 8 (home)

2014
Bulgaria 46 - 15 (away)
Hungary 46 - 13 (home)
Andorra 30 - 10 (home)

- NZ Herald

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