Cyprus target vital promotion to grow Rugby
The focus over recent weeks in the European Nations Cup may have centred on the top division and qualification for Rugby World Cup 2011, but at the other end of the spectrum Cyprus are preparing for their "most important match" in history against Bosnia & Herzegovina on Saturday.
Cyprus' rugby history is admittedly very short, the first rugby club only being formed on the island in 2003, the Federation three years later and their first international match played against Greece on 24 March 2007 at the Paphiako Stadium in Paphos.
Their record, nonetheless, now reads an impressive played 11, won 10 with the only loss coming against Israel 18 months on from that first international, a 23-14 defeat which ended their hopes of replacing their hosts in Division 3C of the European Nations Cup.
On Saturday, Cyprus have the chance to banish the memories of that defeat in Netanya by beating Bosnia & Herzegovina in Paphos to climb out of the European Nations Cup bottom tier as champions and replace Finland in Division 3C for next season.
Cyprus have been the team to watch in Division 3D with only Bosnia & Herzegovina able to live with them, losing their home encounter 8-6. Azerbaijan have been dispatched 37-3 and then 59-0 earlier this month, with Monaco beaten 24-3 and 44-5.
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Loukis Pattihis, the President of the Cyprus Rugby Federation, is in no doubt whatsoever as to the importance of this weekend's match, both in terms of earning promotion and growing the game in a country where the round ball game of football is far more popular.
"It is vital - this for us is the most important match in our short history," Pattihis told Total Rugby Radio this week. "The winner of this match gets promotion to the upper division, the loser is condemned to another two years in the bottom tier of European Rugby. Nobody wants to be there.
"We are a young federation, but we have had a very successful introduction to international rugby. The only game we have lost has been against Israel, as we have been at this stage before, two years ago when we had to play-off against them (for a place in Division 3C).
"We couldn't manage it, we lost and it really, really hurt. But what it has done is it has spurred us on to try again and to want to challenge for promotion again and here we are, two years later after six games undefeated, one game to go, one more challenge to face.
"It hurt so much to lose, so it is not an option we are contemplating. We just can't afford to, we must go up a division, we must progress with the development of Cyprus rugby.
"Winning promotion means everything. It shows what we are doing and nothing breeds success like success and when there is a successful international side this helps to develop the game at grass roots level. Kids love to look up at their heroes and say I want to be part of a winning side.
Promotion key for development
"It will help the development and not only that it actually has come to the attention of the sporting authorities as well because what is still a minority sport in Cyprus, they are beginning to stand up and take that we are a winning side, that we are going places."
The Cypriot Government have given the Federation a small subsidy and allowed them to use the national stadium in Paphos for their international matches, which Pattihis reveals regularly attract crowds of 1,500 to 2,000 to cheer on the Moufflons, as the national team are known.
"For us, winning will make it easier for us to develop the game, introduce more kids into the sport and it is just a conveyor belt, that is how we develop the sport," added Pattihis. "Plus the fact it will feel great to win promotion!"
When Glasgow-born Pattihis returned to the land of his parents, he discovered there was no rugby because there we no grass fields, only the military bases had the necessary facilities and it took a group of South Africa Cypriots, who had played rugby growing up in South Africa and after coming to Cyprus decided to "fling a ball around".
The first club - the Paphos Tigers - were duly formed with two more springing up in Nicosia and Limassol a year later, with Pattihis himself having played a key role in introducing the game of rugby into the Cyprus capital.
"There are so many people who have been exposed to rugby at an early age who have come back to Cyprus with a willingness to create this sport in Cyprus and this is what we have done," continued Pattihis.
Tag Rugby initiative
"It has been very difficult trying to introduce the oval ball into an environment which only knows the round ball is very difficult, but we are getting there.
"We are developing, compared to other rugby teams we are in our embryo stage. Even Bosnia & Herzegovina, the team we play on Saturday, have been playing rugby since the early 1990s, so they have a good 15-year headstart on us.
"We are developing, we have a good academy, each club has its own academy and we are bringing on young kids. We are happy to announce that in our international match against Monaco in November we blooded our first two youngsters from the academy as full internationals.
"This is what we want, this is a fantastic achievement and we are developing our academies and we are actually now starting, through the initiative of one of the clubs, a school tag competition where we go into schools and we introduce Tag Rugby. We have inter school competitions, regional competitions and a national competition. It is about getting people interested, boys and girls, into the sport of rugby."
The inclusion of Rugby Sevens in the Olympic Games from Rio de Janeiro in 2016 is something Pattihis hopes will bolster development in Cyprus, as will the final qualifying tournament of the European Sevens circuit to be hosted in Paphos, an event he expects will give young boys and girls a desire to take up the sport.
"Rugby Sevens is easier on the eye for certain people to look at and it is more entertaining, so to a young person seeing Rugby Sevens it is exciting and he wants to be part of it. It is great to see a person run with the ball all the time and that is what little kids want, they want to run with the ball and beat people, so Rugby Sevens is a fantastic sport."