Under the cover of darkness, the coaches slipped away from the hotel with the passengers on-board unaware of their final destination.
They don’t know how long they are going to be on the bus for, they don’t know where they are going, same with us. They’ve just been taken to a field up in the mountains to play a game in secret because if the government had found out, or if the police had found out - they would have shown up and closed the game.
No, this is not the start of a Stephen King novel but instead the story of the Greek national rugby league team, who with all odds against them have managed to qualify for their first World Cup, despite playing their home games in secret.
An 82-6 thumping of Serbia confirmed their place in the Rugby League World Cup finals, which will take place in England in 2021, but this journey to the sport’s biggest stage has been far from smooth for a nation that only began playing the sport in 2003.
Greek international Robert Tuliatu explained in detail how the Greeks reached this stage to the RFL:
“It started off smoothly, the federation had a good relationship with the government, for whatever reason the federation and the government had a split and the government ran its own organisation which was banned by the Rugby League European Federation (RLEF) for mismanagement of funds.
“So originally, we were supposed to play several internationals and Greece didn’t play those internationals but took the money from the RLEF - when that happened Greece got banned.
“It’s taken a lot of hard work from a lot of people to get the federations started and get back into the international scene but unfortunately, that previous federation that is banned by the RLEF is still recognised by the Greek government.
“So they [the government] play their own competition with their own national team against their own countries which include India and Pakistan. Then we have our own federation which is recognised by the RLEF but not by the Greek government.”
The head coach of the Greek rugby league side is Steve Georallis, who has performed miracles to take his side to the World Cup. He conveyed the emotion every time his side takes to the field to the RLWC:
“Every time we come it’s like rugby league in its raw stage when you play for your jersey and you don’t get paid, you’re playing for your country. You’d do anything to play for your country.
"We’d have to play games in the middle of the night or on fields that we’d have to pay for as we couldn’t get council funds.”
In Group C of the European qualifiers, things came to a head when a World Cup qualifier was played in Greece against Malta, to see who would go through and play Norway.
Tuliatu explained: “Malta has flown over to Athens, we’ve put them in a hotel and no-one is allowed to know where the game is, the players aren’t allowed to know where the game is, the coaches aren’t allowed to know where the game is.
“You’ve got to put yourself in the situation of Malta who have flown over to Greece and not known when they are going to play, where they are going to play - they’ve been told to get on a bus and just drive.
“They don’t know how long they are going to be on the bus for, they don’t know where they are going, same with us. They’ve just been taken to a field up in the mountains to play a game in secret because if the government had found out if the police had found out they would have shown up and closed the game.
“We actually announced a separate field in a place called Patras which is in the Peloponnesus of Greece and the police rocked up there to get ready to close down this game. There is a Balkan Super League which is an initiative we have got going involved Albania, Turkey and Greece and the police rocked up to one of those games, against a Serbian team I believe, and they shut the game down in the second half and took both captains of both teams back to the police station for questioning.”
The game went ahead and Greece won comfortably to set up a crucial meeting with Norway, which, with their talented squad, they also won. A defeat against Scotland in London meant that their fate would come down to a one-match play-off against Serbia in Belgrade.
16 tries later, including a hat-trick from full-back Chaise Robinson inspired a remarkable 82-6 win on an inconspicuous field in Serbia.
What these men have achieved is nothing short of remarkable and they will have already overcome the odds to make it to the World Cup. We cannot wait to see their story continue in England in 2021.