Underdog Odyssey: Greece Prepare For First Rugby League World Cup in the Steel City.
Final preparations are underway in the Greek camp as they prepare to embark on their first ever Rugby League World Cup.
The team will be based in Sheffield and will play all of their Group A games in South Yorkshire. They face France (17 October) and Samoa (23 October) at the Eco-Power Stadium, Doncaster, before finishing their group stage campaign with a massive test against England at Bramall Lane on Saturday 29 October.
Despite defeating Serbia 82-6 in November 2019 to qualify for the tournament, their path to RLWC 2021 has been anything but easy.
One player who experienced the struggles that rugby league has faced in Greece is Ioannis aka “Johny” Nake.
Plying his trade as a fullback or dummy half for Athens club Attica Rhinos, Johny won his first cap for Greece in 2013 and has made 11 appearances for the Titans.
In 2016 the Hellenic Federation of Rugby League – the Greek governing body which was affiliated to Greece’s then-government – was expelled from the Rugby League European Federation (RLEF) for mismanagement of funds.
A new governing body- the Greek Rugby League Association- was established and recognised by the RLEF, but the political fallout from the disbanding of the Hellenic Federation of Rugby League saw the government declare the new governing body illegal.
As a result, all of Greece’s home qualifying matches had to be arranged in secrecy to avoid being broken up by law enforcement.
“Everything was arranged in secret, and we had to be discreet all the time,” Johny recalls.
“If caught we would potentially be fined and banned from sporting activities in Greece. We had to travel far away to play matches and had to train at late hours.”
The threat from the police was not an empty one, with domestic games also being targeted by the Greek authorities.
“When my club was facing a Serbian team, after the match some of the boys were taken back to the police station, and the police also recently tried to stop a 9s tournament we had.”
It was only in early August that the Greek government declared that rugby league had the right to be played in the country.
An added difficulty for the Greeks is that many of their players are only part time, a challenge which teams such as England and Samoa do not have.
“I work as a support teacher to students with autism spectrum disorders for the last decade which is as fulfilling as Rugby to me,” Johny added.
“It would have been awesome if I were a full-time professional but unfortunately this is not possible.”
Johny playing for Greece
Despite entering the tournament as the lowest ranked team in group A and facing the goliath task of playing the heavily fancied England and Samoa, the Greeks are not daunted by the challenge ahead of them.
“Everyone is hyped and excited. We achieved our goal which was to qualify for the RLWC, anything from now on is a celebration and a bonus!”
“It’s a great honour and privilege to be able to represent Greece on the biggest stage there is.
“Personally, I see it as a once in a lifetime opportunity and I am looking forward to gaining as much experience as possible out of this!”
The Greeks have been bolstered by the inclusion of some NRL talent, with coach Steve Georgallis naming South Sydney Rabbitohs duo Lachlan Ilias (half-back) and Peter Mamouzelos (hooker) in the squad.
“I’m really looking forward to playing with Illias, he’s an amazing player,” said Johny.
“Peter is a great player and most importantly a good person. Watching him play at dummy half has been beneficial for me as he has played matches at the highest level. Surely having NRL players on the squad is a massive boost!”
As well as the prospect of facing the Samoan team and Josh Papalii, Johny admits that playing at Bramall Lane and living in Sheffield will be a highlight of the trip.
‘The anticipation is really strong. I can’t wait to step foot in such an historic stadium. Hearing such a big crowd will be amazingly rewarding for all the hard work we’ve put in,”
“Stefanos Bastas,” fellow Greek international and former Eagles trialist who lived in Sheffield, “has helped sell the city to me.”
“I have heard it’s a vibrant city with friendly people. He enjoyed his time living there and I am looking forward to experiencing it myself.”
It is fitting that one of the tournament underdogs will be based in Sheffield, with the Eagles themselves celebrating their return to the Steel City after nearly a decade of battling the odds just to survive.
Indeed, Sheffield will play a prominent role in this World Cup, with the current holders of the Wheelchair World Cup, France as well as Wales, Scotland, and USA, all making Sheffield their home for the tournament.
Speaking of his excitement ahead of the showpiece event, Eagles’ Director of Rugby Mark Aston commented: “To be part of a major tournament is fantastic,”
“It’s great that the city has been recognised and given not just a game, but the only England Men’s group game to be played in Yorkshire, which is significant.”
“To have Greece in the city is massive. It’s a start process for us. What we need is for Sheffield to become the norm if you like. Major games have always been played in places like Leeds, so to get one in the city is a dream come true for us.
“What we need to be doing off the back of the World Cup is to work hard with all of the people who’ve come from South Yorkshire to the game and see if we can get some new people engaged with Sheffield Eagles.”
No stranger to being an underdog, Aston extended his best wishes to the Greek players and staff.
“‘It’s always difficult when you’re the new kids on the block,”
“But the most important thing that I’d say to anybody is that it’s about memories.
“Make great memories and enjoy the competition.
“You’re on the big stage. Do yourselves proud, do your country proud.”
By Ciaran Rooney