Written by Stuart McLennan
Four years ago, young Greek army special forces recruit Thodoris Nianiakis saw his first game of rugby league while visiting relatives in Melbourne.
Eight months ago he attended his initial training session and felt the Steeden in his hands for the first time.
Recently he was named as part of a twenty-man Greece squad to play Norway in a World Cup qualifying match in London on May 18.
It’s been a thrilling ride for the strapping backrower, who can also play centre, after he turned up to an Aris Eagles club pre-season training at Haidari, West Athens in August last year.
Rugby league grabbed his interest on his visit down under but at the time he believed there was no way he would ever play the game.
Team sport is heavily dominated by football (soccer) and basketball in Greece and he wasn’t aware of the existence rugby league in the Hellenic Republic. Growing up he always played football for his village in Kozani, Northern Greece. He wasn’t seeking to play another code.
Life is rarely a straight line however and after the twenty three year old moved to Athens with the army, he considered taking up a “hobby” outside of his working commitments.
“One of my friends (fellow Aris Eagles player Dimitris Xyloparkiotis) from my army parachute division told me about the rugby league and asked me to try it,” Nanianiakis told Everything Rugby League.
“I was looking for a change in Athens. It’s a strong sport and I think it suits me. I love the power. I am not such a technical player, I know that.”
When the squad to play Greece was announced, Nianiakis described himself as being “very happy.”
“To be selected for the national squad is a big honour for me. I’m playing for eight months. I’ve started from zero!
“I must take as much as I can (from the experienced players in the national squad). I’m a rookie I must learn as much as I can to become better,” the young forward who will experience London for the first time explains.
Nianiakis has been overwhelmed by the feeling of community and friendship that surrounds rugby league, a sentiment that endures despite the well documented barriers and difficulties the sport faces in Greece.
“It’s very different than what I experienced with my football team. It’s more like a family. I don’t know how to explain it. When I started playing the boys in the team all gave me a hug like they had known me for years. It’s something special. I feel very good about it.
“Even with the other teams. When we play we are enemies on the field but when when we finish it’s like I know them very well,” said Nianiakis who played in recent games for the Athens XIII against the Rest of Greece and English representative side Heavy Woollen.
Aris Eagles Assistant Coach Jim Minadakis, who has spent many years around rugby league in Australia and Greece, admits to being excited about the potential Nianiakis offers.
“He has size, strong runs and is able to take up the ball as many times as he is called on to do so,” Minadakis said.
“He is from the northern part of Greece and they make them pretty tough up there. He is a country boy who is in the special forces as a Green Beret paratrooper and let me tell you that is not an easy job to do. Hard training, discipline and respect is part of the commando training and he carries that with him everywhere he goes on and off the field.
“I can only see the future of this kid being a bright one. He has raw talent, strength and speed. He is good with his hands and once taught how to use all his skills I’m sure he will become a gun player.”
The Greece squad is made up of fifteen players from the local domestic competition while five heritage players, including captain and ex NZ Warriors under 20s halfback Jordan Meads, will join the team in London. A limit of four heritage players in the match day seventeen has been set for both teams.
The match in May at New River Stadium will determine which team will progress to final play off games with Scotland and Russia. Two nations from that pool will then go to the 2021 Rugby League World Cup.
The winner between Greece and Norway will potentially be one win away from World Cup inclusion. It would be a first for either country.
Match Details: Greece vs Norway, New River Stadium London, 1pm Saturday May 18.