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The Weekend Neos Kosmos : 10 December 2016
SPORT 24 THE WEEKEND NEOS KOSMOS | SATURDAY 10 DECEMBER 2016 DIGITAL.NEOSKOSMOS.COM Johny be good Athens’ rugby league ‘ambassador’ returns STUART MCLENNAN Rugby League in Greece runs on the smell of an (olive) oily rag. The role of volunteers and passionate enthusiasts is crucial in these parts. Attica Rhinos captain Johny Nake has been given the all-clear to return to the field after six months out. It has been a long, hot summer for the livewire hooker. He suffered the setback at the end of last season, breaking his jaw after catching the boot of an opponent in his face while making a tackle. Another player might think of giving the game away after a serious injury in a country where unemployment is high and financial times tough. That was never an option for Johny who coached his Athens club team, acted as touch judge for the Greece versus Turkey international and refereed his first senior club game while unable to play. "I really enjoy the coaching because I love seeing my team improve. As for refereeing, well to be honest, I would prefer to be playing," he laughs. The bottom line is he just loves being around the game he adopted a few years ago. On-field, the 26-year-old Nake is reminiscent of a young Geoff Toovey, all heart and aggression with a perfect tackling technique, a small frame and schoolboy looks. Off the field he is less like the former Manly coach, more laid back, with an engaging personality. "I started playing a few seasons back because the game sounded interesting and now I just love playing and tackling big blokes. "I told everyone I knew how good rugby league was so they would play and I could share that excitement on the field with them." Greece rugby league administrator George Stilianos agrees that Nake has been a great ambassador for participation. "He was the first guy I found for the team back in 2013. He is pretty popular in his neighbourhood and he literally recruited half the team in the beginning. Since he came to his first training session he has contributed massively both on and off the field," Stilianos said. One of those recruits was his best friend Enea Caci, who still plays alongside Nake at the Rhinos. Nake and Caci have shared a long friendship in similar circumstances. Meeting on the first day of school, they are both from Albanian immigrant families who came to Greece seeking a better life in the early 1990s. When Caci hurt his knee on the first day of a recent rugby league tournament in Rhodes and had to spend the rest of the weekend on crutches, Nake immediately went into carer mode, ensuring he had chairs, meals and drinks when needed. "Enea is like a brother to me. Ever since we met on that first day of school we have been besties. He is one the greatest people I know." The desire to help and make a dif- ference to the lives of others has carried through to Nake's career. "I started working with autistic kids when I was about 20. It's a tough job, mentally tiring at times, but rewarding at the end of the day. "As soon as I started working with autistic children I knew it was the career for me. I want to help people achieve goals and become better at things. This in turn helps me evolve as a person." Nake has had the privilege of representing his country three times since he began playing in 2013. Greece national coach Steve Georgallis describes Nake as a "passionate student of the game". "He is always asking questions and looking to improve. I am glad he has recovered from his injury because I know how desperate he is to play." The Australian resident players in the Greek national team are considered "walking encyclopaedias" to Nake. "I have learnt so much from being around them. I have only just started in rugby league but these guys are playing almost before they can walk. "It was a dream of mine to represent my country and such an honour to hear the anthem in front of a big crowd," Nake says of his debut for Greece against Hungary in 2013. "I have been here in Athens since I was six. Pretty much all my life. I feel both Greek and Albanian. "One day I would love to go and play in Australia with a strong team. That is another dream of mine." The domestic competition in Greece was developed by Australian Greeks with a connection to rugby league. If it is to continue to thrive it will be on the back of passionate people like Nake and others who have grown to love the game. "This sport suits the Greeks. I think the game will be huge here." Nake beams with his typical positive energy. * Nake had a successful comeback on the weekend to lead Attica Rhinos to a 52-4 win over the Patras Panthers. He scored two individual tries and made a couple of last-ditch try saving efforts for his team.
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