Rugby League World Cup: Greece’s epic journey to World Cup debut

Jordan Meads (seated on ground, centre) joined 15 other captains at the Rugby League World Cup launch in Manchester on 10 October.
Place: Eco-Power Stadium, Doncaster Dates: October 17, Monday Start: 19:30 BST
Coverage: Watch live on BBC iPlayer, BBC Red Button and online; Coverage and highlights on the BBC Sport website and app

Matches were played late at night and in secret in the mountains of Athens to avoid detection by the police – Greece’s trip to its first Rugby League World Cup was an easy one.

It was only in August, almost three years later Greece was ranked That the Greek Rugby League Federation (GRLF) was recognized by the country’s government as an independent governing body for rugby league there.

Before that, the team was banned from playing matches on home soil for several years.

“One day they’ll probably write a book about us,” says captain Jordan Meads.

“It’s been an incredible journey, but we wouldn’t have it any other way, and our hats off to the other emerging nations who have had to join us on that journey.

“We’re a few months away from rugby league becoming a legal entity in the country and for us, we’re keen to get rid of that victim mentality and see rugby league develop in a country that we know will respond very well to a sport like this.”

Coach Steve Georgallis has been at the helm of the journey since Greece’s first game in 2003.

Helping to grow rugby league in the country of his heritage has been driven by his desire to give something back to his family; His father stands out, who emigrated from Greece to Australia in the 1950s.

He admits he will be “pretty excited” when Greece step out in Doncaster on Monday to make their World Cup debut against France.

Steve Georgallis
Steve Georgallis (right) has held coaching positions at various Australian NRL clubs

what happened

In our interview, Georgallis joked that it would take three weeks to tell the whole story.

In 2016, the European Rugby League Federation (RLEF) voted to suspend the Hellenic Rugby League Federation for “voluntarily acting in a manner detrimental to the interests of the general governing body and international rugby league”. He was later expelled.

The Greek Rugby League Association (GRLA, now GRLF) was granted affiliate member status by European rugby league’s governing body in early 2018, allowing Greece to try to qualify for the World Cup.

However, it is crucial that the Hellenic Modern Pentathlon Federation of Greece, not the GRLA, was recognized as the governing body of Greek rugby league.

Any rugby league played on Greek soil under the banner of the GRLA, by home clubs or RLEF-sanctioned teams, was banned. There were even cases where the police stopped the matches.

Playing in secret

Greece play Scotland in a 2019 World Cup qualifier
Greece (in blue and white) played a “home” World Cup qualifier against Scotland in London in November 2019

Against this unusual background, Georgallis and his players were trying to reach the World Cup.

One of the strangest moments came in 2018 when Malta qualified for Greece. Neither team knew where it was going to happen, and a Greek team official posted a photo on social media from an alternative location to try to throw off the police scent.

New Zealand-born Meads, who has a Greek mother, said: “That was our only qualification match in Athens, and I think because of the strange turn of events, we moved all our ‘home’ matches to London. .

“I really remember getting up and not knowing where we were going to hit.

“They literally said ‘on the bus, we’re going to take you somewhere and you’re going to play 80 minutes of football and hopefully get one step closer to qualifying for the World Cup.’

“An hour and a half later, we arrived at this amazing field somewhere in the middle of the Athens mountains, away from all eyes.

“We managed to perform very well that day, we knew what it meant to play rugby league on our home ground.”

Greece progressed to the final qualifying stage and despite Scotland’s win at London’s New River Stadium, a Serbian goal in Belgrade confirmed their place at the World Cup.

The ‘relief’ of recognition

However Greece will go into the World Cup, they will leave England knowing that the future of rugby league at home must be much brighter.

More grassroots teams, promotion for training and matches, financial support and integration into schools are planned following the government’s recognition of the GRLF.

Having met the parameters of being an independent federation, including having to register at least 20 home clubs, Georgallis was only slightly emotional when the confirmation came.

“Relax. So much peace,” he said.

“It was just a relief to think ‘wow’, we finally got what we wanted to get. To get this far – and to be at the World Cup – is amazing.”

Lachlan Ilias scores a try for the South Sydney Rabbitohs
Lachlan Ilias, a regular starter for the South Sydney Rabbitohs in the 2022 NRL season, is a starter in Greece’s 24-man squad.

Greece have hosted far-flung players in their debut World Cup.

South Sydney Rabbitohs half-back Lachlan Ilias is the star attraction in the 24-man squad and, along with others based at NRL clubs, will be joined by lower-level players from Australia, England’s second-tier Championship and a host of other players. From the Greek internal competition.

Greece, who will play in Group A against England, Samoa and France, are 500-1 to 2,500-1 outsiders to win the World Cup.

When asked about his hopes for the championship, Georgallis answered: “To be competitive.

“It’s going to be tough, but I think you’ll see the fighting spirit we’ve shown in our games over the last 10 to 15 years trying to get rugby league in Greece.

“If we’re competitive, you never know. Funnier things have happened. The Greek soccer team He won the European Championship in 2004 so who knows?”