By the end of this article, the reader will happily note that
- Israel has its first professional Rugby Franchise, the Tel Aviv Heat.
- You can support it by watching the games (live at the stadium and on TV, Channel 5 Sport) and by following their progress on social media
One of the lesser spoken about conundrums facing olim in Israel is trying to find a local professional sports team to support. Especially if rugby is their first love. While I have since followed the lead of my sports-mad 10 year old son and morphed reluctantly into a Maccabist at the Menora Mivtahim Arena, my supporter’s heart remains back under African skies, following the Natal Sharks Rugby Team and of course the Springboks and Blitzbokke. Incidentally, as I pen this, it is day 755 of South Africa being the current Rugby World Cup Champions. Like all of world order, professional rugby too has been greatly upset by Covid-19. Old established tournaments have fallen away. New ones have been created, one of which is an initiative of Rugby Europe, creating a new Club Tournament to expand the game to less traditional rugby markets. Eight Clubs from Belgium, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Russia, Georgia and Israel will fight it out for the inaugural Super Cup.
Yes folks, you read that correctly, the Holy Land, the Land of Milk & Honey, Eretz Yisrael has its very first professional Rugby Team. This in itself is an astounding achievement, for Israel, theoretically, has no right to host such a team (the equivalent of a Rugby Chanukah miracle). It is ranked way below the other countries (#60) in terms of World Rugby Rankings. Russia (#23) and Georgia (#12) have appeared in recent World Cups, Spain (#20) and Portugal (#19) are regulars on the World Rugby Sevens Series Circuit, and Netherlands (#26) and Belgium (#27) have improved tremendously in recent years. The local club scene is strictly amateur (when I turned out at fullback/wing for the Haifa Technion team back in the day, it was more of a social drinking team with a rugby habit). Nothing has changed drastically over the years, and despite the presence of several clubs dotted around the country, and leagues for men, women and youth, it remains very much a fringe sport, with one thousand or so registered players. Only the Kibbutznikim at Yizre’el (where rugby was first played in Israel) have managed to establish a traditional rugby club with clubhouse, regular training, and youth development. With almost no pool of local professional players, the status quo will likely continue. Yet, despite the lowly profile of the sport in Israel, the Israeli Rugby 7’s team had the privilege of becoming the first Israeli sports team to play in a tournament in the UAE in March 2021, since the signing of the Abraham Accords.
So, when the Tel Aviv Heat was launched this summer (with a quick tap & go), its success is testament to all the good things this country can muster: entrepreneurship and the start-up spirit, strong commercial partners (dare I say helped by a robust shekel), and the integration of people and cultures from all over the world, coming together for a common purpose. The team was founded by a couple of local rugbyphile businessmen (who in my unbiased opinion, should be candidates for the Israel Prize). The primary sponsors are MyHeritage, one of the darlings of our Hi-tech industry, and CiiTECH, a consumer focused cannabis research company. But this is professional sport, and for all the feel-good intentions of the management, winning matters.
And winning starts with great coaching and a strong squad, for going deep into a professional tournament like the Super Cup requires experience and a winning habit. The Director of Rugby, Kevin Musikanth, has coached the UCT Varsity Cup team back in South Africa, before he made aliyah to take on the DOR job of the Israeli Team. His professional background and coaching connections have been crucial to recruiting a winning team. He is assisted by a recently retired world-class flyhalf, Demetri Catrakilis, who played top-flight rugby for the Stormers, Montpellier and Harlequins. The scrum coach is a veteran of several top South African clubs with an abundance of intellectual capital on the dark arts of scrummaging. The players include youthful signings from the top u21 South African franchises, Varsity Cup teams, SA Academy 7s players, a couple of Namibian internationals with World Cup caps, and even some exciting Fijians (one of whom won the first Olympic gold in Rugby 7s in 2016, Jasa Veremalua). And there are a handful of marquee players, with heaps of experience and cool heads, journeymen who till recently have played professional rugby for several teams in South Africa, England and Scotland (I’ll name-drop the captain Nick Groom, Renaldo Bothma and ex-Scottish International, Josh Strauss right here).
But this isn’t a team devoid of any Israeli or Jewish content. A third of the roster are local up and coming players, who have played on the Israeli National team, many of whom have spent several seasons on exchange programmes with Club teams in South Africa or Europe (like Yotam Shulman who turned out for WITS and the Stellenbosch Academy of Sport). There are also some players from the South African Maccabi Rugby team, graduates of premier rugby-playing schools and clubs (like Kieran Houlston, a St Johns’s College old boy and Sharks u21), who have joined this venture to strengthen rugby in the Land of Zion (some of whom I trust will make aliyah in the end).
The team has made a good start, winning two out of three games on the road. They have three upcoming home games at the Shlomo Bituach Stadium at Petah Tikvah on 5 December (KO 19:30), 11 December and 18 December (KO 20:00). Go and support them. Clips of the team serenading our medal-winning Olympic Judoka team at Wingate gave me goosebumps. They’re a Blue and White product through and through.