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Breakaway Greeks qualify for Rugby League World Cup

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Athens (AFP)

Greece made sporting history at the weekend by qualifying for the Rugby League World Cup for the first time despite being banned from playing on home soil.

The Greeks made a bad start to the final European play-offs for the 2021 tournament, which is being held in England, when they lost to Scotland in London at the start of November.

But they bounced back in style, thrashing Serbia 82-6 in Belgrade on Saturday to join the likes of Australia, New Zealand and hosts England at the sport's biggest competition.

Greek federation president George Stilianos told AFP he took "great pride" in what Greece had achieved.

"It is an important step for rugby league in Greece," he said.

The achievement has been all the greater because the federation is not even recognised by the Greek authorities and is not allowed to play on home soil.

Officially, rugby league comes under the ambit of the federation of modern pentathlon but a split led to a rival Greek Rugby League Association (GRLA) being set up in 2016.

It has since been recognised by the European Rugby League Federation, allowing it to contest international matches.

The new national team, though, formed outside the auspices of the modern pentathlon federation is not allowed to play in Greece -- for the play-off match against Scotland, London was "home" for the Greeks.

"We hope that our qualification for the World Cup will help to change things," says Stilianos.

- After midnight -

Largely, the players are Australian or English with Greek origins, who have travelled thousands of miles and spent thousands of dollars in chasing the World Cup dream. Just three home-grown players took the field for Greece in Belgrade.

The GRLA championship within Greece consists of seven teams but matches are considered illegal and are played under the constant threat of fines.

In spring 2018, a tournament in Athens was broken up by the police. Matches are often played after midnight to avoid interference.

"There have often been times when we felt like giving up because we felt like we were banging our heads against a brick wall," coach Steve Georgallis told nrl.com.

"But we stuck solid and the domestic players played games in the middle of the night to make sure the competition kept going.

"Hopefully us qualifying for the World Cup helps the domestic teams gain that recognition that we are the Greek Rugby League."

Billy Magoulias, who plays for Cronulla in Sydney, is the only member of the current side with high-level experience in Australia's National Rugby League.

He follows in a rich tradition of Greek diaspora players which includes legendary former Kangaroos captain George Peponis.

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