“I like Greece, I love my family and my friends, my plan is to return there, but only when this crazy and great adventure finishes.”
Hemel Stags’ international recruit Stefanos Bastas tells Ash Hope about his “crazy and great“ RL adventure
AMID the many comings and goings in League 1 during the close-season, an intriguing signing by Hemel Stags seemed to slip under the radar.
The Hertfordshire club have added a dash of international flavour to their squad in the imposing shape of Stefanos Bastas.
The 23-year-old Greece star took a gamble by coming to England on trial, during which he also turned out for Huddersfield-based amateur side Newsome Panthers.
It paid off as the towering prop earned a one-year contract with the Stags, who train in Sheffield.
Bastas had earned plenty of plaudits in his home country, captaining the national side in last year’s Balkan Championships.
He is the first Greek player to earn a professional contract since the inception of the country’s domestic competition in 2012.
Understandably elated at joining the professional ranks, ambitious Bastas admits the move was a huge risk, but explains it was one he simply had to take.
“I have been thinking about doing this for a while,” he says.
“Last year, I said to myself it’s now or never. I’d rather regret something I’ve done than regret something I haven’t.
“There’s no doubt it was a huge risk, a decision that changed my life, but so far for the better.
“The air ticket was one way because I didn’t want to put a time limit on it.
“All I wanted was a trial period without the stress of success of failure.
“The president of Greece Rugby League, George Stilianos, was supporting me all the way, and he made contact with Hemel Stags.
“Dean Thomas (Hemel Stags’ director of rugby) offered me opportunity for a trial and the club trusted me enough to give a contract.
“It’s another step forward for Greek Rugby League, and I couldn’t be more proud.”
Stilianos fronted the campaign for the Greek association to be recognised by the Rugby League European Federation, and his efforts were rewarded with last year’s green light for observer status.
The Hellenic Federation of Rugby League was the previous governing body, but faced expulsion from the RLEF in 2016.
Now Stilianos hopes Bastas’s move points towards a brighter future for the game in Greece.
“This is huge,” he says. “Stefanos will be looked at by players for generations to come as the one who made the bold move and paved the way for others to follow.
“It’s something we actively pursue. If we have a player who is good enough, we contact clubs in the UK and see if any are willing to give them a shot.
“The logistics are not always an easy thing, but we were fortunate in this case that Hemel were willing to give him a chance.
“We are very proud too that Stefanos started from nothing. He’s not a union convert, he’s not someone who grew up in a Rugby League-playing nation, he came as a raw beginner at the age of 18 and excelled from day one.”
Bastas’s first taste of the game came as a student with Rhodes Knights (left) – he was at university there – and he helped the club enjoy a five-year unbeaten run.
“Rhodes Knights trained at the university’s sports complex,” he says.
“I saw them and signed up, and since I stumbled across Rugby League, Greece has made huge progress.
“With the support of the Greeks in Australia, soon we are going to have more players and teams and a better standard throughout the game.
“The sport is gaining reputation and is expanding all over the country. I’m very optimistic and I genuinely believe it is only a matter of time before it is a force.”
Bastas worked in a restaurant while studying in Rhodes, and soon found himself similar employment at Brown’s Bar and Brasserie in Sheffield.
“I was working as a waiter back in Greece. It’s a good job and one I enjoy, so I personally handed in my CV at several restaurants in Sheffield.
“Soon after I got a job offer and I was incredibly happy. I should thank my manager, who fixes my shifts so I can attend training. That has been a huge help.
“The majority of people here are sociable and helpful and I am very well organised now.
“It is a totally different way of life over here, a different way of thinking and of course different weather!”
“But I’m starting to get used to life in England. I have my job, my club and my gym too.”
Bastas says he will return to Greece – but not before trying to make his name in Rugby League in the UK.
“I like Greece, I love my family and my friends and their love strengthens me all the time. They will be with me all the way,” he smiled.
“My plan is to return there, but only when this crazy and great adventure finishes.
“At this moment, my main goal is to become better at Rugby League, to develop my skills and expand my knowledge and experience.
“I want to reach the highest level I can, hopefully here in England, and play for as long as possible.
“But the most important thing for me it to enjoy every moment, every session and every game. Having a good time is the true meaning of sport.”
This feature was first published in Rugby League World magazine, Issue 443 (March 2018) pictured. If you enjoyed it, why not consider taking out a subscription to read many more great features every month covering the whole world of Rugby League, from the grassroots to the international game and all points in between?