Written by Stuart McLennan
After a number of years battling to keep the sport alive in his home country, you can forgive Greek Rugby League President George Stilianos for walking along the bustling streets of Athens with an extra spring in his step lately.
Following the national team defeating Serbia 82-6 and clinching their first-ever World Cup spot, the Mythos and ouzo flowed in Greece and all the way over to Australia.
The World Cup dream has been alive since the early 2000s when the Hellenic side first started playing international matches and it is now a thrilling reality.
Just as satisfying for officials is the booming domestic competition that has seen two additional Athens clubs making their debut in the 2019/20 season.
“This season we had two new clubs join us: AEK and Athens City Raiders,” Stilianos explained.
“Also teams now have a lot more depth than they used to as they are playing more matches than ever before and getting through the matches despite injuries etc.
“We have two active women’s teams now too which has been a great addition to the Rugby League scene of Greece and we are aiming to add another two this year.”
In a demonstration that the competition is strengthening and the power base is shifting, the formerly undefeated Rhodes Knights were beaten 24-26 by the Athens based Attica Rhinos. Rhodes first defeat since the championship started in 2013.
There are three clubs, Rhodes, Attica Rhinos and Aris Eagles (Athens), which have genuine claims to the premiership. A situation that pleases Stilianos immensely.
“It shows the improvement and coming of age of these two Athens teams. It has made things really exciting for anyone watching our matches and has given players even more motivation to train and play well.”
Two tiers were introduced this season for geographic reasons and to ensure more even contests. Stilianos says the change has been successful so far.
“We did this for logistical reasons, but also to put the teams of similar standard together. People underestimate that Greece is much bigger than they might realise. For example, to get to Rhodes (from Athens), we need to either take a 15-hour ferry or a 1-hour flight. This is difficult and costly enough, so we have kept our regional city teams, Patra and Larisa (three and a four-hour drive from Athens, respectively) in a separate group.
“In terms of ensuring even matches, that also seems to be working. So far, from the six matches played, there has been one draw, and the highest winning margin has been just six points.
“The Athens Cup was also added to give the Athens teams extra matches during their weekends off.”
“There has been a change in leadership at the Modern Pentathlon Federation (the body deemed by the Government to administer rugby league in Greece), so things are far less hostile than they used to be.
“Until the situation does get fully sorted out though, we are just hiring privately-owned fields every time that we play, so that we cannot get into any trouble.
“The growth of our competition is going really well as we now have 7 teams. Our next target, ideally, would be to start some youth teams.”
Athens City Raiders head coach Christos Mouzakitis has seen his side, made up largely of first season players, on the wrong end of large defeats against more experienced sides while also celebrating the club’s first win over Patras 14-12.
“This is a very refreshing experience as you come back to the basics, trying to explain the fundamental mechanics in a way that is understood by an adult where actually these skills are supposed to be taught to kids,” Mouzakitis said.
“Athens City Raiders started with a vision to build a community-based rugby league club. Our goal is to succeed in moulding good athletes and people as well.
“Our aim for the first two years will be to build a core of players for both our men’s and women’s teams and build a network of cooperation with established individuals and organisations around our sport. Then we should be able to move on to the next phase of our plan, to establish a junior side to serve the community and provide playing opportunities from the juniors to the open age sides.
“Even though major media attention has not been achieved yet, there are already signs that World Cup qualification has paved the way of attracting new players and potential sponsors.”
Athens City Raiders have successfully secured a major sponsor from Australia, Sydney Electrical Contractors Pty Ltd.
“There is indeed a lot of evidence that this will be the best season so far for RL in Greece.” the Raiders mentor enthused.