Anyone visiting the Greek island of Crete will be treated to fantastic food, spectacular scenery and the warm hospitality that the island locals are famous for.
On a balmy evening in the harbour city of Chania, you might also spot a group of men and a few women practising scrums and lineouts or diving into recently purchased tackle bags as they prepare for a new season with the Chania Cretan Gunners Rugby Club.
Back in October 2015 two Greek rugby enthusiasts, Dimitiris Katsofrakis and Spiros Terezakis, decided to form a club in Chania after playing ‘the game they play in heaven’ elsewhere in Greece.
They were joined by a third fanatic, Constantinos Manolikakis, who remarkably learned to play rugby in Brazil.
After recruiting some friends that were keen to learn the game, the Gunners Rugby Club was up and running.
Recently retired physical education teacher Phil Elcock came across the fledgling club while browsing Facebook and immediately offered his services as club coach.
“I could not believe my good fortune, the guys accepted my offer of help and I have been involved ever since April 2016. What a great journey it has been so far,” said Elcock who is originally from Bedfordshire in the UK where he played and coached the game.
“We have been coming to Crete for the last 25 years and have had a house here since 2005.
“After all these years of coming to Crete I am amazed that rugby has not featured here before,” Elcock said.
The island’s history and nature of the Cretan people appears well-suited to the game of rugby: it is an island whose inhabitants historically struggled for independence and resisted occupation with their famous fighting spirit.
“It is a game that suits the Cretan/Greek mental and physical toughness and this is often seen in physical sessions during training, the bit they enjoy the most,” said Elcock, obviously impressed with the enthusiasm of his players.
The Gunners train at the National Stadium in Chania – also home to AO Chania Football Club – and are negotiating to fully establish a home there, including playing games at the venue in the future
“The club has an ‘open door’ policy to all who want to train both seriously and for fun and no fees for this are involved,” Elcock said
“Since last September approximately 60 people have attended a training session. Some have stayed and some decided it was not for them. Next season we expect to have a playing squad of around 30.
“We have four experienced players including Georgian player Georgi Maxatadze, all the rest have started from point zero, the task of getting to this stage has been huge.”
The Gunners have taken the opportunity to arrange training games with visiting navy ships from the United Kingdom and United States and played their first-ever club match against the Athens Spartans last February.
They were beaten by their more experienced counterparts in that match but benefited from the experience, celebrating a win against the Thessaloniki Lions four weeks later.
The club has also entered the last two Kavala Beach Rugby tournaments. A popular event on the rugby calendar in Greece.
After training for six weeks on the beach in Chania, the team put in a much improved performance recently finishing fifth out of 11 teams.
While the men’s team is developing well, the Gunners also have broader plans to ensure relevance and sustainability of the club.
“We are looking at a rugby camp-type scheme next summer to introduce 12- to 14-year-old boys and girls (The Powder Monkeys) to the game. This will help us in terms of creating interest and widening our supporter base not just to young people but also to their families.
“We have young women train with us and we are keen to add more as we would like to develop a women’s side in the future.
“Another piece of the jigsaw fell into place this year with the club taking over two small retail units and joining them to create a clubroom and home for the Gunners. Work on this is ongoing but it will be complete for the day of our first match at the stadium.
“We look forward to developing players for a national side as well as becoming a key player in the development of rugby union across Greece and in particular Crete,” said the coach.
With Elcock’s positive outlook combined with the Cretan spirit, I am sure the Gunners are going to give it one hell of a shot.
The Chania Cretan Gunners will resume training for next season at the Chania National Stadium in September.