By Alexander McCowan
THE Cyprus national rugby team, current holders of the world record for consecutive international wins (19), take on Slovenia on Saturday (2.30pm) determined to extend their record to 20.
Known as the Moufflons, the Cypriots begin the second leg of their 2013/14 season having achieved a clean sweep in the first part of 2012/13 with wins over Bulgaria, Austria, Hungary and Slovenia. This means that they have already won European division 2C because, even in the highly unlikely event of them losing all their remaining four matches, no rival country has amassed sufficient points to challenge them.
Unbeaten in the past five years, there is an irony about the clash with Slovenia, because the last time they played in December 2012, the match was billed as a World Cup qualifier by FIRA, the governing body of European rugby. After Cyprus emerged 49-8 winners they had every reason to believe they would be in the European play-offs for the 2015 Rugby World Cup in England.
However, following a disagreement by the International Rugby Board (IRB) over membership criteria, the Moufflons were denied participation even though the IRB had stated that “if Cyprus won their division they could proceed to a World Cup qualifier.”
Given the hardship that the national team labours under: lack of sponsorship and denial of sufficient funds to pursue international rugby without players contributing to their expenses, it was a bitter blow. To add to their misery, Slovenia replaced them in the play-offs and went on to lose to Luxembourg, from the division below.
The squad that Paul Shanks, the national coach, has taken to Ljubljana contains three new caps, Jack Antoniou – ‘the Henley Express’ – Tom King, brother of seasoned player Matt King, and Yiannis Loizia. All three have proved themselves in Sevens or development games.
Shanks believes the squad has a good mix of youth and experience: “We have been weakened by injuries and non-availability. The team has everything to play for in the forthcoming season and I am sure they will prevail,” he said.
“We are taking nothing for granted but I expect a result. Every game is a chance to build and develop and this gives us a solid foundation for the future.”
Stormy weather is expected which should favour the host side but the Moufflons have experienced winter conditions in Helsinki and Sophia so should not be intimidated.
Laurence Vasilliades, the president of the Cyprus Rugby Federation, who will not be travelling with the team, claims: “I am not too worried about the absentees, it happens to all sides, given injuries and work commitments.
“Remember we are a team of amateurs and play for the love of the game. Our development programs and the progress of the Sevens team under John Long, is now paying off and giving us a supply line of young players ready for full international experience. I’m sure Paul will get the blend right.”
Squad: G. Agathocleous, J. Antoniou, R. Bennett, A. Binicos, C. Constantinou, F. Efthymiou, S. Elefterious, L. Frixou, T. King, Y. Loizia, M. Maratheftis, D. McFarlane, M. Mladenovic, A. Philiotis, F. Stavrou, S. Theklitou-Panagiotou, B. Torgut, A. Thoma (Captain).
By Alexander McCowan