Rugby: 21 wins and running, rugby 'world record' unsung in football-mad Cyprus

PAPHOS, CYPRUS (AFP) - Most Cypriots are blissfully unaware of it but their national rugby team have notched up a 21st straight triumph, thanks largely to former expats and foreign soldiers on the football-mad island.

A crowd of fewer than 500 turned up at the end of November in the coastal resort of Paphos to watch the team nicknamed the "Mouflons" beat Austria 22-8 in a somewhat disorganised but enthusiastic head-to-head at the less lofty levels of world rugby.

Out of 26 internationals - albeit never against any giants in world rugby - the Division 2C leaders have only suffered a single loss and that was back in September 2008 against Israel.

And for the IRB, the record run of international victories is held by Lithuania of Division 2A, which notched up 18 straight successes between 2006 and 2010.

At the very highest level of the sport, New Zealand's All Blacks won all 14 Tests they played this year - a first for a team from a major playing nation in the professional era.

Cyprus compete in the European nations championship and, since 2008, have been promoted a division every season on the back of their successful run.

They now top Division 2C, ahead of Hungary, Slovenia, Bulgaria and Austria, and has their sights set for next year on climbing to 2B, which currently lists Israel, Lithuania, Andorra, Denmark and Serbia.

But they are not even in the running for the 2015 World Cup qualifiers, with the spot taken by Slovenia only to be eliminated by Luxembourg, whom the Mouflons had crushed twice in 2011.

Under the rules of the International Rugby Board, its sport's governing body, competing nations must have at least four local clubs, but four of the seven in the Cypriot league come from the British sovereign bases.

Rugby union in Cyprus was long confined to the two British military bases and the barracks of Argentine soldiers in the UN peacekeeping force on the divided Mediterranean island.

Locals only came into contact with the sport about a decade ago when Greek Cypriot expatriates started returning home from South Africa in large numbers.

After starting out with beach rugby in the southern resort, the ex-South Africans in 2003 founded the Paphos Tigers, growing in strength on the back of matches against army clubs.

A year later, the Limassol Crusaders and Nicosia Barbarians were born, leading to a federation and national team being formed in coordination with Cypriots living in Britain.

Their debut was a friendly against Greece in March 2007, when, strapped up in ill-fitting shirts hastily bought in a pub, Cyprus romped to victory 39-3.

The Mouflons have not looked back since.