This was the final pool game of the Rugby Europe Super Cup. With the Black Lion winning the day before, the result of this game on 30.10.2022 would have no bearings on the final log. TAH were already through to the semis but could not overtake the Georgian Champions to gain pole position in the Eastern Conference. And with this being the final home game, it was a fitting occasion for Coach Musikanth to showcase the Israeli players and their progress. Three local lads started (Levinson at #9, Eisenberg at #12 and Abutbul at #14). Two more were on the forwards bench, the abrasive Yiftach Engel and front-rower Nitzan Reizel. There were some other rotations, where Muller started at hooker, Chait, the starting flyhalf in every game till now was benched, and Jobb, the starting fullback in every game, dropped out the matchday squad. Despite, all the changes, I had a sneaky suspicion this was going to be a special performance because the Starting XV contained no less than three #9s. Thain, normally a scrum half, was playing at #10, and Saunders, also normally a scrum half, was winging it at #11. At RWC 2019, the two 9’s of NZ combined for a dazzling try, scored by TJ Perenara, who received an outrageous behind-the-back pass from Brad Weber. It was later awarded Try of the Year, although some credit should be due to the Namibian tacklers for never giving up on the covering defence. A young Prince Gaoseb was packing down for the Namibians that day at blindside flank, so I wonder if the TAH Captain knew his team had an ace up the sleeve with these selections and positional changes.
The set pieces for TAH worked well throughout the game, but it was the ‘’defenders beaten’’ stat on attack that made all the difference. The official RE match stats reflected 30 to 0 (corresponding to missed tackles 0 to 30). In the modern, professional rugby game, it is an oft-spoken mantra that defence is a state of mind. Having said this, it seemed from the stands that the Romanian players appeared distracted by the sites and sounds of Tel Aviv, rather than concentrating on their opposition, the Tel Aviv Heat. Although they did play a relatively young side for their final pool fixture, the Heat took their chances well, and were clinical in their finishing throughout. In the 5th minute, Saunders fielded a kick that was not cleared, gave a long pass out to Nacebe at fullback (who till now had always started on the wing). He set off on a weaving run, beating a handful of would-be defenders for the opening score. The Wolves came right back with a lineout drive from 10m out, with their hooker crashing over. But that was as good as it got for them. For the next 70 minutes, the Heat ran in a further 8 tries. Their loose trio of Gaoseb, Berman and Veremulua each crossed the whitewash in the first half. And outside centre Jone Manu danced and side-stepped from the 22m, and completed his try with a swaggering swan dive over the line. Half-time 29-5.
Venter, the regular starting hooker came on in the second half. He scored a brace from a pick and go close to the line, and then from a lineout maul, where some wonky defending on the blind side allowed him to peel away almost untouched. The Israeli due of Reizel and Engel came on for the last 30 minutes, and then Jordan Chait and Semi Kunatani entered the game for the last quarter. Chait sent a pinpoint kick-pass for Abutbul on the right wing for him to catch and dot down. And then Kunatani, in the final minute, made a clean break down the left and sent an inside pass to Thain, for the final score. Abutbul converted the final try for the comprehensive 55-5 victory. The semi-finals are scheduled for 3-4 December. TAH will have to make the trip to Lisbon to play the Lusitanos, who topped their log in the Western Conference (it will be a repeat of last season’s semi-final). Some of their players will have appeared in the Portuguese squad for the final RWC 2023 qualification tournament (being held in Dubai from 6-18 November) by the time the big weekend of the semi-finals arrives. By contrast, the Israeli players in the Heat will have turned up for the more modest Rugby Europe Conference 1 South competition, with games against Bulgaria and Cyprus over this period. This illustrates the long-term potential for the Israeli National side, leveraging the level of competition exposed to the Tel Aviv Heat in the Super Cup, and challenging for higher honours in the World Cup.
Some of the TAH players who may enjoy a bit of break till then are the Fijians. Like the three scrum-halves, the six Fijians in the team also had a big impact on the game. I happened to be sitting next to a beaming Fine Tagi Ditoka. Fine (pronounced Fee-nay) is a Fijian expat working at the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem. In her spare time, she also volunteers for the Heat, helping with logistics and schlepping around, and overall being a general mother-figure to the boys from Fiji. One of the most beautiful sights in World Rugby are Fijian players making ridiculous offloads, side-stepping opposition to find space, and running exquisite support lines. And one of the most spiritual sights on the rugby field are Islander players huddled in prayer after the final whistle. Fine, with her network in the ICEJ, has seen a gap in the market, and has become a de facto sports agent for Fijian rugby players, responding to their queries about living in Israel and playing for the Heat. It may not be one of their official pillars of work, but this superb Christian Zionist Organization is inadvertently helping to strengthen rugby in the Holy Land.
The semi-final lineup for RESC 2022 over 3-4 December: Lusitanos play Tel Aviv Heat (I assume in Lisbon), and Black Lion play Iberians (presumably in Tblisi or Kutaisi). Venues and KO times to be confirmed. Bookmark https://www.telavivheat.com/ for more updates
*** And this just in, before publishing: Tel Aviv Heat will play Saracens in London, Sunday, November 27th, as final hit-out before their semi-final! Kudos to the TAH Management Team for setting this up and bringing Israel’s first professional rugby team to one of the top Rugby Clubs in the world ***