By Alexander McCowan
When the Cyprus National Rugby team was promoted and went undefeated for the third consecutive season in European Competitions they had little knowledge of the quality of the opposition they would face in Division 2B where they are now lodged.
It was taken for granted that the countries would be stronger, more seasoned, and certainly more experienced and more than likely better financed – as the Moufflons are tragically aware, in Cyprus, success does not attract funding, unless it relates to football – and the further the sides travel in the European divisions, the more likely to encounter national teams staffed by professional or semi-professional players. Cypriots are true amateurs, the rare breed that still plays for the love of the game and by necessity, contribute to their travelling and accommodation expenses.
So it was with slight trepidation they embarked on the first home game of the season against Andorra; a small principality situated in the Pyrenees Mountains between France and Spain. The team is a mixture of French and Spanish Catalans who play their rugby in the lower divisions of the French and Spanish leagues where the games are renowned for robust play and an uncompromising view of the Laws of the game – some referees are said to wear shin-pads.
Despite the gloomy weather there was a good turnout at the Paphiacos Stadium, the Moufflons’ home turf, with the regular battalions of lady volunteers controlling the turnstiles and programme and strip sales that are essential for securing the modest financial returns achieved on international day. There was a heavy downpour before kick-off, and while it didn’t damage the surface it created very slippery conditions for the players and the ball. The spectators were informed that there would be a change of captain, and the veteran prop, Tony Thoma, who was unavailable, would be replaced by Marco Mladenovic in the back row.
The Andorrans, a fine collection of mountain beef, left an early imprint on the Cypriot pack, which led to many errors and the visitors threatening the Moufflon goal line early on that led to an easy penalty conversion from the Andorran full-back following a late tackle, giving the visitors a 3 point lead, and ten minutes in the sin-bin for George Agathacleous. Andorra continued with their dominance of the Moufflon pack in the scrum and the line and were eventually rewarded with a converted try that took the score to a worrying 10-Nil lead for Andorra.
There was a hesitancy and lack of decision about the home side pack that needed correcting, as the Cypriot backs were superior to their opposition, but were unable to exploit the advantage, because the forwards failed to gain possession and distribute the ball and it was at this moment that the young Mladenovic asserted his leadership and aided by the back-row, pulled his forwards together to enable the mercurial Zavalis, operating behind the scrum to touch down and convert. This improved the Cyprus position so that they left the field 3 points down at 7-10.
Outsiders are not allowed in the changing rooms at half-time because one of the reasons is that the coaches sometime use some very abrasive and wounding language on the teams and one can only speculate that Phil Llewellyn, the Moufflon’s coach didn’t depart from tradition. It was immediately apparent that something had been injected into the Cypriots as they came on to the field a transformed side.
It was unfortunate for the visitors that some of their efforts went unrewarded but the cohesion of play between the Moufflon forwards and backs improved tremendously and following early penalties easily taken by Alex Zavalis, there followed the try of the match if not the season: Jack Antoniou was fed the ball deep in his own half and motored past three opponents until confronted by the Andorran full-back he kicked ahead, gathered on first bounce and travelled the rest of the field to bring the score to 20-10 when he converted the try.
Following another successful penalty to Cyprus with the score now standing at 23-10, the game was put beyond doubt Cyprus 30 Andorra 10, by replacement Stevey Awah, the Limassol stalwart, coming on for the new young talent, Michael Asprou, who we will hear more from according to assistant coach Andy Binicos.
No spectator could claim it was a pretty game, in fact it was extremely rough and rugged, and perhaps the visitors deserved a better score-line, but rugby is a game for grown-ups and the Andorrans will get their chance when Cyprus visits the Pyrenees next year.
There was an air of relief about president Laurence Vasiliades at the full time whistle, his broad shoulders certainly took a battering during the game: ‘If this is the level of opposition we can expect in Division 2 we shall need to beef up our game. Admittedly we were short of some key players, but I think this was an excellent result for the first game of the season, and we will have learned a lot from it. Our coach Phil Llewellyn will have had a good oversight of what we have here on the island and will set out to achieve the right blend for the rest of the season. We shall improve our fitness levels and continue building on our island resources, through schools and academies. Ric Wadmore, our development officer tells me numbers are increasing weekly. The children are the future of our game’.
Theo Lenos, team manager, said ‘ I thought I was back in South Africa during some passages of the game, but I am proud to say our lads stuck to their task and triumphed in the end. Did you see that try by young Antoniou, it was a cracker. We shall have a few more of those I think.’