David Arkin

Tel Aviv Heat fall just short in stirring comeback against Black Lion

The Kunatani Express coming in at speed for a try. Photo credit Daniel Halac.

The Heat are currently in Budapest, preparing for their semi-final against the Romanian Wolves this Saturday in the RESC. Catch the game live on Rugby Europe TV at 1430, or on Channel 5 Sport.

It’s worthwhile to review their final pool game, and an epic encounter against the Georgian RESC Champs, Black Lion. For the second week in a row, the Heat played in a new country, Cyprus, this time for a ‘’home’’ fixture. The Israeli public was robbed of watching this game locally, a fallout after hostilities broke out on October 7. In probably the most-anticipated pool fixture, the game did not disappoint in drama. Similar to last year’s final, the Black Lion roared ahead and built up a commanding 23-6 lead at half-time, with TAH coming back into the game, winning the 2nd half easily 21-6, and losing by 2 points in the end: final score 25-27. In between, rain and lightning played havoc, as half-time turned into a 30 min plus break. The players remained fired up after the final whistle, seemingly oblivious to the fact they had actually lost the game narrowly. Indeed, all post-match interviews and chatter was about bringing the good momentum from the 2nd half into the semi-final this weekend against the Romanian Wolves (and then getting stuck into the Black Lions for a rematch in the final). I would have liked to have been a fly on the wall at half-time, as Coach Kevin Musikanth allegedly read the riot act, telling them to play for pride, play for the jersey, play for the people back home who couldn’t watch the game in the Petah Tikvah stadium.

In the end, no-one actually watched the game live. The Cypriot Police closed the stadium to all spectators, sort of an ode to any anti-Israel demonstrators potentially turning violent, and quite frankly very disappointing. Musikanth bulked up the starting pack for this one. Namibian Muhaua Katjijeko, normally at lock for TAH, played openside flank (in a tribute to Pieter-Steph du Toit?). He played in that position during RWC, so although it wasn’t a radical position change, it was a mark of respect to the big Black Lion pack. There were no less than 13 Georgian internationals in their match day squad. Katjijeko did move back to the 2nd row in the 33rd minute, when Conradie went off injured. He continued to have an excellent game, á la PSDT, in the loose and in the set piece, where he was colossal jumping at the front of the lineout. If TAH do in fact meet the Black Lion again in the final, they will know full well that any inaccuracies will be punished. Missing a touch here, missing a tackle there, and the Georgians were clinical enough to play percentage rugby, playing for territory, playing over the phases, and exploiting the space to score. The rain was bucketing down at the end of the first half, and they adapted to the atrocious conditions better too, full value for the three tries they scored. Probably the highlight of the 1st half for the Heat was Jordan Chait scoring two penalties, bringing up 150 points in Super Cup for him, the highest scorer in the competition.


The extended break due to the lightning show obviously did the TAH some good. Well, that and some choice four-letter Anglo-Saxon phrases by said Head Coach no doubt pointed them in the right direction. I honestly can’t remember the last game TAH weren’t yellow-carded, and indeed it was the Black Lions who copped the only card of the game. Flanker Sandro Mamamtavrishvili (try saying that name 3 times fast) smashed into Chait for a late tackle, and was sent to the sin bin for his efforts in the 46th minute. Chait’s halfback partner, Niall Saunders, added to the edge, by waving goodbye to him as he trundled off the field, with a mischievous smile that could have been worn by Puck. The late hit on TAH’s sharpshooter appeared to galvanise the Israeli team, and they scored soon after, from a big rolling maul. The TAH finishers again looked the business, as the comeback continued with a Semi Kunatani special (his 5th this season), in the 63rd minute, and then replacement prop Danny Hobbs went over in the 72nd minute, his first in TAH colours. Two penalties from the Georgian team in the 2nd half were enough to see them home (and earn the right to a potential home final in Tbilisi).

Does the Georgian team have an inadequate strategy in the second half, when their bench is released on to the park? Their Test side and franchise, Black Lion, have the identical coaching staff, and a widely overlapping squad available for selection. At the recent RWC, they were 13-5 up at half-time against Portugal, and ended up drawing the game 18-18. Against Fiji, they were 9-0 up at the half, but lost 12-17. Had they closed these games out, they would have likely been through to the quarter-finals. Musikanth and Co. no doubt will be plotting to exploit this. But first things first. There should be no disrespect to the Wolves, who have stacked their team this year with Romanian Internationals, also back from RWC duty, some beefy Georgians amongst the forwards, some Saffa journeymen (including their captain), and even an Island boy or two. If you’re a rugby fan in Hungary this weekend, the Budapest Rugby Centre is the place to be. And no doubt the Heat would love your support, far from home.

About the Author
David is a proud supporter of the Tel Aviv Heat Rugby team, Israel's first professional rugby franchise. He may have been a rugby scribe in a former life. In his current avatar, he is a project manager at Hanson Israel, a subsidiary of the Heidelberg Materials Group