Tel Aviv Heat Rugby team created another piece of history last Sunday, 16 October. They won their first home game on Israeli soil. Well, it was only their second ever game within Israeli borders, and it was a gutsy and determined win over the current RE Super Cup holders no less, the Black Lion of Georgia. With both teams scoring 2 tries a piece, it was a penalty and a superbly taken drop goal by Jordan Chait which settled the final score 24-18 in the end.
It was a hot autumn day (the official game sheet noted the temperature as 31 °C), and the warm weather would have an impact as the second half wore on. The TAH kicked off and started at a blistering pace, with hooker Venter finding himself in space just inside the 22m, and with a clear run-in, crashed over the whitewash in only the 2nd minute. Chait obliged with the extras, and from the restart, before one could catch one’s breath, Black Lion outside centre, Tapladze, made a big run from the 10m, with would-be tacklers falling at the wayside, for an immediate try in response in the 4th minute. The conversion was missed, but both teams had made big opening statements.
Penalties were traded by both teams, and with TAH 10-8 up, were building up attacking phase play in the Black Lion half. The ball went loose, and the counterattack was swift from their right-wing Tabutsadze. The Black Lions are a dangerous team from broken play, and their eigthman, Ivanishvili was held up over the line by a handful of TAH defenders. However, scrumhalf, Thain, was deemed to have come offside prior to the try-saving tackle and copped a yellow card. The Georgians chose to tap and go, and after a few drives, a defensive hole opened up behind the tackle and their flank, Gachechiladze, drove over for a well-worked try. At 10-15 and a scrumhalf down, the Israeli team did not back off. After an attacking line-out on the 22m and some probing runs, the tighthead Theys decided he could moonlight as a scrummie, and set up Chait, who had dropped back, for a well-taken drop goal. Thain returned to the pitch, but there was more indiscipline on the stroke of the half, as the Fijian opensider, Kunatani, was shown a yellow for illegally bringing down an attacking maul close to the line. In the last three games, TAH have now been shown no less than 7 yellow cards, something they will need to watch carefully if they reach the knock-out phase of the competition. The half-ended 13-15, with the game wide-open.
TAH were still down a man as the second half commenced, but they took the lead as one of the Georgians was penalised for hands in a ruck. That 1-point lead was lost moments later, when the fullback, Khmaladze made a strong run, gaining several metres, setting up an attacking play on the 22m. TAH were penalised for not rolling away at the breakdown, and the Black Lion regained their 2-point lead, 16-18. I alluded to the heat previously, and when the Georgians substituted their entire front row the following minute (the 48th), this set off a spate of substitutions for both teams. Israeli international, Idan Eisenberg made his debut this season, coming on for injured inside centre, Buliruarua, and Irishman Niall Saunders also made his season’s debut, replacing Thain at the all-important half-back position.
The game became a bit stop-start, with both tactical and injury substitutions slowing play. During this period, TAH was awarded a penalty, and they regained the lead 19-18. In fact, the finishers of the Heat on the day outplayed their opponents. Both benches were emptied, but the TAH subs were savvy in their game-management. The medical staff had a busy afternoon, attending real (or imagined) knocks, sometimes before big scrums, allowing the big boys in the engine room to catch a breather. I thought the Black Lion maybe tried to force the pace of play a bit more, and this caught up to them, where crucial unforced errors interrupted their attacking flow. The heat was a definite factor. From my vantage point in the Sport 5 Studio, I could see how the spectators scrambled for the higher-tiered seating in the shade, out of the hot sun.
Earlier in the week, Adi Raz, Chairman of TAH, had asked me if I wanted to be a pundit on the live Sport 5 broadcast of the game. I thought it highly rude to say no, so there I was, alongside veteran Sports journalist and Commentator, Boaz Korpel, doing it ‘’freestyle’’ (or in the words of Boaz עושים פריסטייל). And when left-wing Ulenga, out of position on the right touch, put ball on toe for a delightful chip ahead, fullback Jobb collected it on the bounce and went over for a glorious score in the corner. Freestyle commentary gave way to shouts of delight and fist-pumping on air. The wide-angled conversion was missed, which meant the home side had to defend the final 10 minutes as the Champs came back, battling away to find a winning try. But the Heat were resolute in the heat, and their strong defensive scrumming in this final period ensured they closed the game out for a famous victory.
They go again this Saturday 2 October, after Shabbat at 20:00, at Shlomo Bituach Stadium in Petah Tikvah. They face RC Batumi, the winner of which will take a huge step towards securing a semi-final spot. Grab your tickets at https://www.telavivheat.com/. (There is also a chance to win a Royal Caribbean cruise for two)