2015 Rugby World Cup
Cyprus owed a World Cup chance
Graham Jenkins
April 18, 2013
Cyprus have little reason to celebrate having been denied the chance to qualify for the 2015 Rugby World Cup © Cyprus Rugby

They were dancing on the streets of Nicosia just a few short weeks ago having seen the national side set a new world record mark of 18 consecutive Test match victories - but that elation has since turned to despair having been denied the chance to qualify for the 2015 Rugby World Cup.

The path to IRB membership

  • 1.A Union must apply to become an associate member of its Regional Union
  • 2.After all membership criteria are met, including one year as an associate member, the Union is admitted to the Regional Union as a full member
  • 3.After completion of stages 1 and 2, and two years as a full member of a Regional Union, the Union may then apply to become an Associate member of the IRB. As an associate member, the union can participate in IRB funded tournaments but not the Rugby World Cup
  • 4.Following two years of associate membership of the IRB, the union may then apply to become a Full Member

The Moufflons, as they are known in honour of the wild sheep that roam the Cypriot mountains, have swept all before them in the last four and a half years on a march up the European pecking order from obscurity to the top of the European Nations Cup Division 2C table - effectively the sixth division - with another promotion seemingly within their grasp next year. Their achievement is all the more remarkable considering they only entered the international arena six years ago and a real credit to those desperately trying to grow the game in a country dominated by football and currently in the middle of a well-publicised financial crisis.

Such success in adversity should be celebrated by the International Rugby Board (IRB) but their hands are tied by their own regulations that state that Cyprus cannot even dream of gracing the World Cup stage as they are not full members of the sport's governing body. This same red tape suggests that their recent Test match record is also 'unofficial'. Instead of looking like an inspirational organisation coming good on its promise to develop the game in all regions, the IRB look a little foolish, denied the opportunity to hold Cyprus up as an example of their successful development policy and instead are seen to apparently hinder their development.

The IRB ruling caused a storm on social media with an online petition aimed at forcing a re-think attracting widespread support. However, the IRB are defiant and have since reiterated the rules in a bid to quell the outcry.

"Under IRB Bye-Laws a national Union must be affiliated to the International Federation as a full Member Union in order to participate in Rugby World Cup qualifiers," the IRB said in a statement. "The Cyprus Rugby Union is currently not in membership of the IRB. In order to participate in the qualification process as with all Unions, the Union must first seek and achieve Associate Member status and then apply for and achieve full Member Union status. The criteria and timelines are clearly defined under the IRB Membership Pathway and Criteria.

"The IRB welcomes the application by the Cyprus Union to seek Associate Membership status in accordance with the Pathway, Criteria and Bye-Laws and is delighted that the Union has strong ambitions to join the 117 Unions in membership of the IRB and participate in future RWC qualifying processes. However, despite the strong performances of the national team in the FIRA-AER European Nations Cup, the IRB Executive Committee determined that Cyprus does not currently meet all of the necessary membership criteria."

The Cyprus Rugby Federation (CRF) are no strangers to this 'pathway' having long since achieved full membership of Fédération Internationale de Rugby Amateur - Association Européenne de Rugby (FIRA-AER ), the regional union and organiser of the European Nations Cup competition. They also applied for associate membership status with the IRB in February last year - the penultimate step to becoming a full member union - which is where their World Cup dream falters.

The CRF reluctantly accepted the IRB's decision despite their confidence in their application. The make-up of the country's domestic tournament appears to have been a stumbling block - with the four British army sides in the country not recognised as clubs - but even if that criteria had been met then the rules state they can only apply for full membership having served two years as an associate member - a status they are yet to achieve.

Cyprus are clearly not going to win the World Cup or deny another side more deserving of a place at rugby's top table thanks to a lengthy qualification process that provides too many hurdles for even them to negotiate. But surely they are deserving of the chance?

With the continued success of the national side no doubt fuelling their desire, the CRF were hoping to be afforded the kind of leniency recently given to other unions. Greece were granted full membership on a 'probationary' basis last November despite not fulfilling any of the requirements. Due to their 'unique circumstances' they were granted 'special dispensation' to allow the Hellenic Federation of Rugby 'every possible opportunity to bolster domestic competition and development programmes' and crucially the chance to take part in World Cup qualifying. That is now tantalisingly close for Greece with their clash with Luxembourg this weekend set to decide their World Cup qualifying fate.

There is also a precedent for the IRB waiving other criteria with the United Arab Emirates Rugby Federation (UAERF) progressing from associate to full membership within a few months in 2012. They were fast-tracked following the disbandment of the Arabian Gulf RFU and 'following significant advances'. But perhaps most tellingly, they were praised for 'assuming a leadership role in what is a strategically important region for the development of rugby'. Would the IRB have taken a different stance with Cyprus if they were not part of the game's stronghold in Europe?

They certainly feel hard done by - "if they wanted us to be there they would allow us but, for some reason, they don't" said one source close to the process - and fear for the sport's future in the country but the IRB clearly believes the region can weather the blow. "The CRF regrets that the IRB has taken this decision which we believe will have severe and detrimental effects on Cyprus rugby, especially due to the economic and continuous crisis that has affected the nation recently," rued Lawrence Vasiliades, president of the CRF.

Cyprus are clearly not going to win the World Cup or deny another side more deserving of a place at rugby's top table thanks to a lengthy qualification process that provides too many hurdles for even them to negotiate. But surely they are deserving of the chance?

Hungary are set to feel the backlash this weekend as they take on Cyprus in their latest ENC 2D fixture. Currently second in the table, Hungary edged out Austria 11-10 in their most recent clash - a side Cyprus despatched 54-20. But regardless of the result and the apparent disparity between the two sides, it is Hungary who have a better chance of lining up in the first round of European qualifying next month.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.

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