Tel Aviv Heat off to cracking start in RESC (and put some smiles on Israeli faces)

The 3rd edition of the Rugby Europe Super Cup started over the weekend, with the Heat getting it done with a comeback bonus-point win 31-23 over the Lusitanos in Lisbon. “It’s been a very tough few weeks back home,” said TAH Head Coach, Kevin Musikanth, in the post-match interview. “This victory is for them and for everyone affected from October 7 onwards.”

Rugby fans here and all over the world have only just caught their breath this last week, with a riveting conclusion to the French RWC 2023, and our very own Tel Aviv Heat were off to a flying start against the Portuguese outfit in the Super Cup. Portugal had a cracking World Cup, winning over the hearts and minds of neutral fans with some outstanding running rugby, and no doubt, the Lusitanos squad came into this fixture high on confidence, looking to emulate their recent successes. I counted no fewer than 9 players who had played in the World Cup, including their captain, Tomas Appleton.

For the Israeli side, over 80% of the squad re-assembled this season, testament to an outstanding spirit within the wider squad, coaches and support staff. The new faces included hooker Nazir Gasanov (a veteran Russian from Enisei), centre Howard Mnisi (former Lions and Cheetahs – with lots of Super Rugby experience), prop Danny Hobbs-Awoyemi (from Northamption Saints), lock Louis Conradie (a journeyman, most recently playing at Toyota Verblitz in the Japanese league), and utility back Vaughen Isaacs, a Baby Bok (Springbok U20 from 2019). Sebaastian Jobb, the flashy fullback for the first two seasons (who also debuted for the Blitzboks earlier in the year), was out injured.  His very capable replacement was James Verity-Amm (from the Blue Bulls).

The home team started more strongly, which was not completely unexpected, given that their combinations had a more settled look. Their starting locks and entire back row had spent over two months together at RWC. And it was the Portuguese fullback, Manuel Cardosa, who scored the opening try in the 10th minute. Their set pieces looked slick, and their kicking kept the Heat in their half for much of the opening stanza. They also added two penalties to go 13-0 up. Near the end of the half, Fijian Semi Kunatani made a breakout run from a ruck within his 22m, and some good recycling of the ball between backs and forwards, put wing Matt More in for his first try. Chait missed the extras, and at the break, 5-13 down, there was plenty to work on.

The second half also didn’t start well for the visitors. World Cup Captain, Appleton, put fellow World Cup squad member, eighthman, Manuel Picao, into space for a try. Now 5-20 down, some substitutions were made. As we had also seen in France from the cup-winning Springboks, games are won in the second half, not the first half. Musikanth employed a 6:2 split on his bench, out of the Rasnaber playbook, and set up a 4 try blitz to close the game out for TAH. Mitchel Carstens came on at flank, and had a big impact on the breakdown and in loose play. Kunatani was unstoppable from a 5m penalty and crashed over the whitewash. The entire front row was substituted, which paid dividends with a scrum penalty. This was after a raking 50:22 from scrumhalf Niall Saunders put TAH into an attacking position. He was indifferent in the first half, with wayward decision-making, but made up for it later with some simply splendid kicking to keep his forwards on the front foot. From said scrum penalty, they opted for an attacking scrum again, worked some phases and spun it out wide to Matt More, who cantered over for his second. It was 17:20, with twelve minutes to play. By this time, Louis Conradie and Thomas Berman were both on the field, and the Heat ‘’bomb squad’’ was having a telling impact. Saunders broke through on attack in the 22m, and offloaded to More, to complete his hattrick. Chait obliged with the conversion, to lead the charge 24:20. The Lusitanos did not lie down, came back from the kick-off to earn a penalty to get within one point. But some cool heads and deft kicking kept the Portuguese side pinned in their half in the final five minutes, when, at the death, Kunatani capped off an excellent game by running from the base of the scrum to score on the far-right touch. Chait made no mistake with the angled conversion to make the final score 31-23, and deny the Lusitanos a losing bonus point.

The degel hanging in the TAH changeroom with #Bringthembacknow written over it was telling who this game was for. They go again this Sunday, November 12 at 13:30, when they play the Iberians in Valladolid, Northern Spain. Support them by watching the game on Channel 5 or on Rugby Europe TV.

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