Greece national rugby league team captain Stefanos Bastas has been rewarded with a contract after taking a risk and leaving his homeland, family, and friends to pursue a dream in the sport he loves.
Bastas moved to Sheffield, England in November to train and trial with Hemel Stags Rugby League Club, eventually securing a one-year deal with the semi-professional Hertfordshire outfit.
It is the first time since the Greece local rugby league competition was formed in 2012 that a domestically produced player has obtained a professional contract.
The Stags compete in the third-tier Rugby Football League (RFL) League One competition in Britain.
Hemel Stags director of rugby Dean Thomas said “we’ve been really pleased with Stefanos’ progress so he will be signing for the club. He’s a big strong front row player and will hopefully make a real impact for us. He’s a good honest guy who is great to have around the club.”
Bastas, who has also landed a job as a restaurant waiter in Sheffield, said the feeling of having a contract in his hand is “unique”.
“I still can’t believe that I left Greece. No doubt it is a huge life-changing decision but it was now or never and I made the decision,” the 23-year-old former Rhodes Knights front rower told Neos Kosmos.
“In every training session I am learning something new: the speed of the game is a lot quicker, players here watch and play rugby league from a young age so they act automatically,” said Bastas who discovered the game six years ago.
“In my opinion we will see a rugby league explosion in Greece in the coming years.
“I would like to thank all the people involved with Greek rugby league both in Australia and Greece. Without them I wouldn’t be here today.”
Greek rugby league officials are hopeful that this development will pave the way for further recruitment of Greek domestic players in the semi-professional leagues of England and France.
Rhodes Knights coach Michalis Hatziioannou, who has mentored Bastas since he started playing at the club in 2012, said it was always one of his goals as a coach to see one of his players at a professional club.
“It is an amazing achievement for Stefanos, for me, the Rhodes Knights and the Greek Rugby League Association (GRLA).
“Stefanos has managed to create a link between Greece and abroad which will definitely see other players following.”
GRLA president George Stilianos emphasised that it is a significant milestone for the organisation.
“We always knew this day would come, but I never expected it to happen so soon. Local player development has always been, and will continue to be, our number one priority.
“I want to congratulate Stefanos. He’s not only an exceptional player, but is an absolute role model for others both on and off the field. He has an incredible work ethic and attitude and is always looking to improve his game.
“He made a bold move, literally booked a one-way ticket over, absolutely nothing was guaranteed, but the risk has paid off.
“The semi-professional English and French teams might start to take more notice of the minor leagues of Europe.
“The fact that we are now live streaming all of our matches this season will make it easier for a player to get spotted.
“It will hopefully inspire other players to aim upwards and believe that if they put in the hard work, they could make it into one of these leagues one day.”
Bastas captained the Greece national side that competed in the Balkan Championships in Belgrade recently. Greece took a squad made up of domestic players chosen from the local four club competition. There are currently approximately 100 active players in Greece.
The Greece team comfortably defeated international newcomers Bulgaria 68-8 before coming up against an experienced Serbian team in the final who won 50-8.
After the game, Greece national coach Steve Georgallis shook the hands of all his players in the dressing room saying “Welcome to international rugby league. You have learnt a lot,” acknowledging the step up in level for his inexperienced squad.
Georgallis also had plenty of praise for his captain and Man of the Match against Bulgaria, Stefanos Bastas.
“It is not just what Stefanos says on the field that helped me decide to make him captain. It is how he plays the game and the respect the other players have for him.”
In further positive news for rugby league in Greece the four domestic clubs, Attica Rhinos (Athens), Aris Eagles (Athens), Rhodes Knights, and Patras Panthers are likely to compete in the Balkan Super League in 2018.
The Balkan Super League was launched this year with club teams from Serbia, Turkey, Bulgaria, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. The inaugural title was won by the Red Star Belgrade club.
“It is exposing our players to a higher standard of rugby league, especially those that don’t make it into the national team,” Stilianos said.
“They still get an opportunity to travel and play against some of the better teams of our region. It also gives us all an extra something to work towards for the season.”
While there has been rapid progress recently, Greek rugby league administrators believe long-term sustainability of the game in the Hellenic Republic is the number one goal.
“Our main priority is getting the game strong in Greece, increasing playing numbers, the amount of clubs and the standard of play. We need strong foundations in place so that we will be here for the long term,” Stilianos said
“Larisa and Pyrgos (Ilias) are two areas that have recently started teams, which we’re very excited about. We are confident that they will be ready to start playing matches in 2018.”
In October this year the Rugby League European Federation (RLEF) reported that a court in Athens had dismissed an application by the Hellenic Federation of Modern Pentathlon to support its position as the governing body of rugby league in Greece, with the exclusive right to field a Greek national team.
The RLEF went on to say that the decision supports the Greek Rugby League Association’s position as the nation’s legitimate governing body under the Rugby League International Federation.