Greece will make their first ever Rugby League World Cup debut in 2021 after qualifying against all odds and thrashing Serbia 82-6 last week.
What is Rugby League?
Rugby league - a game unknown to most of the world, yet hugely popular to the point it is heralded as a religion amidst the tribalism of Sydney, Australia and the east coast of Australia in general. The 13-a-side game should not be confused with rugby union. It is a highly physical, fast-paced, 80-minute game that requires a skillset often different to what one would imagine. Rugby league players have emerged as amazing modern-day athletes and have had no problem switching to play other codes.
Traditionally, it has been a game for all shapes and sizes, as numerous ‘little men’ have flourished, but today the stereotypical player in the modern game is well over 180cm tall, with a weight of close to or over 100kg’s. Outside backs such as wingers and centres, have proven to be the faster, more-athletic players. The ‘spine’ of a team is comprised of the fullback, five-eighth, halfback and hooker - these are generally the players with the most smarts about them, with a good ability to read the game and produce the big plays. The forwards (props, second rowers and locks) are the hard-hitting, bigger guys with mongrel. In the modern day, these players are well over 100kg’s and deceptively fit. Today, a sizeable proportion of the players are of Polynesian background.
The game, also popular in northern England and the Pacific Islands, has numerous leagues around the world, with the National Rugby League (NRL) in Australia being the most competitive. A recognised league was first formed in Sydney in 1908 with several foundation clubs still surviving to be stronger than ever today.
Given the amount of Greeks in Australia, especially Sydney, interest in the sport among the Greek community has always been huge.
Several Greek Australians have made a huge impact on the sport across all forms. There have been many players of Greek descent that have featured in the NRL over the years such as George Peponis, Glenn Lazarus, Jason Stevens, John Skandallis, Braith Anasta, Jason Stevens, Steve Georgallis, Willie Peters, Jim Serdaris, George Gatis, Nick Kouparitsas, Justin Tsoulos to name a few.
However, the Greek influence on the sport does not stop there. The late Peter Frilingos was a well-respected journalist, Nick Pappas (a lawyer) is a board member at a club, Jason Demetriou (who played professionally in the English Super League) is making waves on the coaching front back home in Australia. Then there is Nick Politis - the supremo known as “The Godfather”. The successful businessman is considered as one of the most powerful and ruthless men in the sport. In fact, his sponsorship of ‘City Ford’ in 1976 was the first time a team had sponsors appearing on its jerseys.
Rugby League in Greece
Greek Rugby League was only established 17 years ago and a team nicknamed “The Titans” was formed. Initially, the team was comprised of diaspora Greeks from Australia, but over time that has changed as a Championship has been formed in Greece and efforts have been made to grow the game.
However, it has not all been smooth sailing for the sport in Greece, thus making this triumph even more special. The issue stems back several years ago with previous corrupt Governments doing their best to kill the game. Nowadays, Greece has two Championships - one that is banned by the Greek Government but recognised by the Rugby League European Federation (RLEF), and another recognised by the Greek Government only.
In true Greek fashion full of controversy, the Hellenic Federation of Rugby League was suspended by the RLEF in 2016 for “wilfully acting in a manner prejudicial to the interests of the RLEF and international rugby league.” As a result, a rebel Greek Rugby League Association was formed in March 2017 and is recognised by the RLEF, thus being eligible to participate in the official World Cup qualifying proceedings.
The conflict between the two bodies still continues to this day. The team that is recognised by the RLEF cannot play any matches in Greece as it is banned - police have previously turned up to games and halted them. On one occasion, a match between Greece and Serbia was stopped and police took the captains of the respective sides away for questioning. Consequently, games take place well after midnight in obscure locations to avoid being caught.
The National Team’s run to qualifying for the 2021 World Cup
The National Team has even had to lie about the location of certain matches in a bid to distract police. On top of this, the team was forced into moving games away from Greece in the qualifying stages of the 2021 World Cup. The team edged past the Ukraine 28-26 in its first Euro C South group stage match, then thumped Malta 60-4 to top the group. This earnt the team a playoff spot against Norway. Although the game was meant to take place in Greece, the off-field situation prevented that from happening and it was shifted to London. Greece won 56-26 to qualify for the European Play-Off Tournament.
Greece was then drawn to face Scotland and Russia, with the top 2 booking their spot in the 2021 tournament held in England. The Scotts were highly fancied to top the group and did just that after beating a brave Greece outfit 42-24. Although the game was hard fought and the scores were tied at 24-24 midway through the second half, the favourites upped the tempo and proved too strong. The game was played in London, even though it was a home game for Greece.
From there, the equation was simple. Win the next game against Serbia to book a maiden berth in the tournament (Serbia replaced Russia following their withdrawal). The Greeks did just that, thumping the Serbs 82-6 in Belgrade last Saturday. Most of the players ply their trade in semi-professional competitions in Australia and England, and only two from this team came from Greece.
NRL-contracted forward Billy Magoulias led the way (playing in the number 6 shirt), along with another young up and coming player in Peter Mamouzelos. At the moment, there are no players in the NRL of Greek descent but hopefully that will change with this duo in the years to come. Die-hard rugby league fans may remember the captain of the team - crafty halfback Jordan Meads. The Greek from New Zealand was a dominant player in the old National Youth Competition (NYC) - under 20’s, almost a decade ago but unfortunately it never happened for him at the top level. The now-veteran was also a key player in the rout of Serbia.
Former player Steve Georgallis has done an outstanding job as head coach of the team and is thoroughly deserving of all the praise he is getting. He has taken a back-to-basics approach to get the best out of his players. He reminded the players to go back to their grass roots level, where they developed a love for the game and play for the Greek flag. This passion for the sport and country ultimately prevailed. As the sport is illegal in Greece, there is no government funding and the players often have to pay for their own costs to play for the National Team (perhaps the members of other Greek National Teams could learn from this hunger and desire to succeed…).
This underdog, ‘backs against the wall’ mentality has served the team well but from here the direction the team takes will be key. There were only two players that were selected from the Greek competition for the game against Serbia, with the rest being Greeks from the diaspora, even half or quarter Greeks. Does Georgallis continue with this approach to put up a respectable fight in the actual tournament, or does he opt for more Greek-based players in a bid to endear the team to locals in an attempt to grow the game in Greece?
Rugby League’s growth
International rugby league has taken off in recent years and the World Cup competition has turned out to be a great opportunity for the smaller nations. Numerous Pacific Island countries such as Tonga and Samoa are a genuine threat to the traditional big three of Australia, New Zealand and England. For instance, Tonga beat Australia 16-12 last week and the Australian team is considered as the best in the world. As previously mentioned, a large size of players in the NRL are Polynesians and many have begun turning their backs on representing Australia and New Zealand (and the increased money that comes with it). This has been pivotal to Tonga’s rise.
For Greece, following a path similar to that of Lebanon is more realistic, however, the Lebanese have a lot more good quality players in the NRL at the moment. In the 2017 Rugby League World Cup held in Australia, Lebanon stole the show by fielding a strong team, mostly made up of Australian-based players with Lebanese background. They were classed as huge underdogs but made the quarter finals, and were so close to making the semi finals. Since then, things have gone pear-shaped for Lebanon as off-field issues akin to Greece’s situation such as corruption have hampered their progress.
In Greece’s case, it will be a stretch to even get near Lebanon’s achievement but the fact this determined team even made the 2021 World Cup is a huge achievement in itself, when you consider the adversity faced along the way. Eventually, it would be great to see more Greek-based players in the team but in order to achieve that, the League needs to become stronger and the game needs to grow in Greece. To do that, the government has to get its act together and support this team.
The draw for the 2021 tournament takes place on the 27th of November, 2019 with Greece being in Pot 4. Hopefully the next two years leading into the World Cup see an improvement in the off-field situation and a respectable showing could spread awareness in Greece.
Congratulations to all the players and coaching staff on a fantastic achievement!!!
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