NICOSIA, March 14 (Reuters) - The Cyprus rugby team, who played their first match less than six years ago, could make history on Saturday when they face Bulgaria hoping to equal the world record for consecutive international victories.
The ‘Moufflons’ - affectionately named after the horned sheep indigenous to the country’s mountainous regions and a national symbol - are on a 17-game winning streak.
After joining the Federation of International Rugby Associations (FIRA), the governing body of European rugby playing countries, in 2007, Cyprus’s rise through the ranks has been meteoric.
With just one defeat in 21 games, two successive promotions have lifted the Moufflons from the third tier of rugby playing nations to a victory shy of becoming joint world record holders on 18 consecutive victories, alongside Lithuania.
Head coach Paul Shanks, a Welshman and Royal Air Force officer who travels from his home in the southeast of England a few days before each game, insists the record is not the priority.
“The world record is a bonus but must not distract us from our main purpose which is to treat each game with due respect and ensure that we win this division and not rest on our laurels.
“If we set a new world record in doing so, then so be it,” he told Reuters.
Given that they took the field for their first international match less than six years ago, this achievement is nothing short of extraordinary.
Originally a sport played exclusively by foreign military personnel at the island’s two British sovereign bases and United Nations barracks, it was not until 2003 that Cyprus’s first independent rugby club was established.
It was in that year that a group of Cypriots, who relocated from South Africa back to Cyprus, together with British expats living in the western coastal town of Paphos, formed the Paphos Tigers.
This was followed by two more teams, one in Nicosia and another in Limassol. As they grew, so did their ambitions with a pool of only around 70 players.
Starved of publicity and funds, Cypriot rugby has not had an easy ride.
The annual grant the country’s Rugby Federation receives from the Cyprus Sports Organisation (CSO) stands at 30,000 ($38,800), on a par with the monthly wage of some of the highest paid club footballers on the island last season.
With so little money available to the national team, players have had to make significant contributions, often having to foot part of the bills for their own travel expenses.
But going out of pocket is not the only sacrifice they make.
“We normally try not to plan too much training before the game because many of the guys cannot afford to take too many days off work. So usually we assemble just a couple of days before,” 24-year old winger Tom Loizides told Reuters.
A win over Bulgaria, who Cyprus thrashed 94-3 the last time the teams met in 2012, would place the squad, which includes students, trainee accountants, teachers, an architect and a managing director of an online gaming company, in the history books.
However, in a sign of how unknown the sport is to the soccer-obsessed islanders, it is unlikely that more than 1500 spectators will be there to watch.
In a country where the sports pages are dominated by soccer and the occasional story trailing the fortunes of the country’s top tennis player Marcos Baghdatis, the success an amateur squad have had with the oval ball has gone largely unnoticed.
Judging by the surprised reaction of most locals at merely the mention of the existence of a Cyprus rugby side, it is safe to say that the sport is yet to capture the hearts and minds of the island’s 840,000 population.
“I don’t know the first thing about rugby, I actually didn’t know we had a rugby team, I’ve never read about this in any of the newspapers or sports websites,” said 25-year-old sports enthusiast Yiannos Hadjielia.
“Sounds like an impressive achievement, but I certainly won’t be following the game, there is soccer on at that time,” he added. ($1 = 0.7722 euros) (Editing by Ed Osmond)