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Skysports.com's rugby union writer Tony Curtis catches up the Welshman who has helped mastermind the rugby revolution in Cyprus.

By Tony Curtis - Follow me on Twitter: @SkysportsTC.   Last Updated: 06/12/12 1:34pm

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In the Mediterranean a rugby revolution is rapidly gaining momentum.

Despite having to live a "hand to mouth" existence and cope with a player base of around 60, Cyprus are on the verge of making history.

Not since a 23-14 reverse to Israel on September 6, 2008 have the "Moufflons" suffered defeat - and having won 16 matches on the bounce they are now closing in on Lithuania's world record of 18 victories.

Under the guidance of Paul Shanks, an RAF officer based in Buckinghamshire, Cyprus have climbed the lower echelons of European rugby - and are on the verge of reaching the knockout stages of the qualification process.

It is a phenomenal achievement for a country that only competed in its first international in 2007 (a 39-3 win over Greece) - with rugby only played by the military on the island until the emergence of the Paphos Tigers.

Now, three local teams - Limassol Crusaders and Nicosia Barbarians have joined the Tigers - compete with military-based teams in the national league.

However the whole process has not been without its problems, with Cyprus struggling for funding and facing a battle with the IRB over recognition.

On top of that their players are scattered all over the world, while rugby has to live in the shadow of football on the island.

The aim, though, is to continue to push through the European leagues towards the World Cup - starting with Saturday's match with Slovenia.

Shanks told Sky Sports: "We started off by playing Austria in mid-November in Vienna and won 54-20. We've then got Slovenia this Saturday and after that it is Bulgaria in March and Hungary in April.

"Depending on where we are in the league, hopefully we will move into the knockout qualification stages. However we have heard from the IRB that we are not eligible to enter as we are not full members so we will have to see what happens.

"A lot of people talk about the record and there is no doubt that it is at the back of the mind but for me I want to leave a legacy for the sport in the country."
Paul Shanks

"We appear on the Rugby World Cup website in the qualifying section and to me that would indicate that we are in the process. We have completed our application for associate membership that has through FIRA AER (the European Rugby Association) and now sits with the IRB."

Legacy

A clean sweep in their division would be enough to see Cyprus surpass the world record for consecutive international wins, however Shanks believes it is more important to progress the development of the sport in the country.

"A lot of people talk about the record and there is no doubt that it is at the back of the mind but for me I want to leave a legacy for the sport in the country," he said.

"If we can turn some heads and get some recognition from the Cypriot people then that should put it in a better position."

Although Shanks accepts "football is king" in Cyprus, rugby is moving in the right direction.

"Rugby was exclusively military until the early 2000s," he said. "Then a civilian side - the Paphos Tigers - was formed. After that, another two civilian sides - one in Limassol and one in Nicosia - were set up.

"There are still the premier military sides so there is a small league that runs September to March, with a cup competition running from March.

"We have a player base of about 60 with our squad spread over eight or nine countries. We have one coming back from Singapore for the Slovenia match, while we have others in South Africa, New Zealand and Australia.

"Unfortunately some of them only have a limited involvement as we've not got the money, while they have club commitments.

"We have a few players based in the UK playing at a decent level. We have a lad who plays at Currie in the Scottish Premiership (Andrew Binikos), while the Pontypridd captain Chris Dicomidis plays when we can. We then have another guy at Esher (Tom Loizides).

Talisman

"He will love me for saying this but George Agathocleous is a real talisman for us. He is a South African-Cypriot and a really handy player. He is injured for the Slovenia game, though, as he has had a knee operation but he will be back in the new year."

Shanks, who former coached the Combined Services Under-21s to victory over England Students at Twickenham in 2006, joined the set-up during his time stationed on the island.

And although he is back in the UK, the 47-year-old still keeps a tight rein on the side.

"I got involved through the British Military as I'm in the Royal Air Force and was stationed out there for three years between 2006 and 2009," he said.

"In 2007 I got chatting to one of their coaches and I mentioned that I had done some coaching, so I was asked if I was interested in getting involved. A week or so later I got a phone call and I helped them prepare for their first ever game against Greece.

"Then in 2008 the head coach stepped down so I would have been a fool not to take up the offer to replace him.

"I am now based at RAF High Wycombe so I do a lot of stuff most nights on the laptop, emailing the players and dealing with different things. The real coaching comes in the pre-game camps. This week we will meet Thursday and train. We will then have two sessions on Friday and the game on Saturday.

"I have an island coach who keeps the players in shape, while I hold UK-based sessions once a month where possible depending on the matches."

For now Shanks' focus is on Saturday's match with Slovenia - and potential joining South Africa on 17 successive international wins.

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