Bravo England on 18 in a row but Cyprus beat rats, kicks and punches for 24 | Simon Burnton

Simon Burnton
England were pretty dejected following defeat in Dublin, but at least they weren’t on the brink of setting a world record of consecutive international wins. Photograph: David Rogers - RFU/The RFU Collection via Getty Ima

The report on the official website of the Cyprus Rugby Federation of the team’s resounding victory over Azerbaijan in 2008 makes for interesting reading. Among the indignities endured by the travelling team in Baku were “two hours at immigration awaiting entry visas, four hours’ sleep, poor accommodation and no real food”, singing their anthem “to the bemusement of the opposition”, who didn’t bother with their own, their flanker having “his cheekbone smashed by a stray elbow” – “his assailant went unnoticed”, it is noted, while the victim “will require surgery to correct his smashed face” – and “a cowardly attack” on one of their props that “saw him being kicked, punched and pushed”. In the accompanying photograph the team is pictured upon a field that boasts only a passing acquaintance with grass.

“We found people squatting in our hotel; beggars in the reception area,” Marko Mladenovic, who played that day, told the New Zealand Herald in 2014. “The rooms were really bad. There were brown stains on the sheets, some of the boys saw rats. No one wanted to eat anything, in case we got sick. We rocked up to this ground which looked like something from a zombie film. The posts had mattresses tied around them as protectors. There were bits of grass here and there, but it was just a piece of land.”

It may not have been particularly edifying, but this was history in the making. The Mouflons – nicknamed after a wild and prodigiously behorned sheep – won 37-3, the first of a record‑breaking run of 24 consecutive international victories which was not to end for another six years. There were more indignities along the way: on their next away trip they were left stranded at Sarajevo airport when their coach broke down and had to abandon training due to “extreme weather conditions” (though it has to be said that residents of Cyprus, which over the course of an average year runs the gamut of climactic conditions from mild to warm, might not have the same definition of this as native Bosnians). But there were no defeats, at least not until after promotion to level 2B of the European Nations Cup in 2014 forced them finally to play teams who could beat them.

And so it is that Cyprus sit at the peak of a statistical mountain, while few others ever leave the foothills. No other international team in the history of rugby union has ever won more than 18 games in a row, and other than Cyprus, 100% of the teams that made it that far were promptly beaten by Ireland.

Cyprus players train at the Pafiako Stadium in Paphos. Team member Luke Frixou: “We had a culture, we were almost expected to win and that confidence tends to result in winning.” Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

England’s defeat in Dublin will have been cheered not just in Nicosia but in Auckland. New Zealand were the first team to win 17 successive matches, in 1969, saw South Africa equal that record in 1998 and then spent nearly 20 years trying to set a new mark, equalling it once. When they finally managed it, someone else threatened to knock them back off their perch five months later.

Instead, on Saturday, England became the second team in all of history, and indeed in the past six months, to stall on that lesser figure. But even so, many will already consider them and the All Blacks to be the true record-holders, given that most of their games came against Tier One nations.

How, though, can winning runs be reasonably ranked? Clearly Cyprus are not, and have never been, as good a team as England and New Zealand, but that does not necessarily mean it is easier for them to win an international game (although, just to be clear, during the period we are looking at it was: in only five of their 24 matches did their opponents score more than 10 points; they won by a hilariously lopsided aggregate score of 1,070-177, or an average score of 45-7).

“At the end of the day it’s still international rugby, it’s one country playing another country and you can only beat who’s put in front of you,” says Luke Frixou, a member of Cyprus’s record-smashing side – and also, for a while, of the Team GB bobsleigh squad. “For me, thrashing a team isn’t as satisfying as grinding out a result. We had a culture, we were almost expected to win and that confidence tends to result in winning. Expecting to win without complacency is a good place to be. We’d turn up thinking, ‘We’re going to win this game, and we’re going to win the next game.’”

Buhran Torgut runs with the ball during Cyprus’ home European Nations Cup match against Austria in November 2013. Cyprus won 22-8, the 21st win in their sequence of 24. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Although Cyprus have been playing international rugby for only a decade – the 10th anniversary of their first fixture falls on Friday – two generations of Frixous have already turned out for the national team: Luke’s father, Felix – who also represented the country of his birth at squash and football – won his first and only cap in 2007, aged 45. His son made his own bow five years later.

Somehow this rag-tag bunch, of disparate ages and interests, recruited from all corners of the Cypriot diaspora and from the island itself, forged a fierce kinship. “With international sport, representing the country, you have a bond that brings you beyond just playing for an ordinary team,” says Frixou, who was born and raised in Derbyshire. “It’s like a brotherhood. That’s why we were so successful. It’s a deep connection to have. Cypriot culture is very different to English culture but anyone with Cypriot roots would have some experience of what it’s like. It’s a very passionate country, and a loving country as well. People embrace you with open arms.”

As first New Zealand and then England embarked upon winning runs that threatened their own, attention has returned to a Cyprus side whose 24th win, when they came from 10-0 down to beat Andorra 30-10 in Paphos in 2014, was watched by just a few hundred people. “The attention probably is a bit strange, to be honest,” says Frixou. “There’s not many times when people take notice of a really low-level country playing a low standard of the sport. At the time people were campaigning to get the recognition that we deserved. Well, we’re getting the recognition now.”

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