David Arkin

Tel Aviv Heat tame Romania Wolves in Rugby Europe Super Cup Opener

Romanian Wolves vs Tel Aviv Heat | RESC Highlights

In case you’ve been living under a rock, or perhaps simply not a rugby fan, you may have missed the opening game of the Tel Aviv Heat’s 2nd season This past weekend they made a bold statement beating the Romania Wolves away in Bucharest 25-20.  

Israel’s first professional rugby team was launched in the summer of 2021 to play in the inaugural Super Cup of Rugby Europe (RE). They had a busy first year: they reached the semi-final of said tournament, embarked on a historical tour of South Africa, several members of their squad played in the Maccabiah rugby competition (under the flags of South Africa and Israel), and they participated in the Rugbytown Sevens in Glendale, Colorado. The foundations for a second successful season were set: the Management Team remains in place (CEO Peter Sickle, Head Coach Kevin Musikanth, assisted by Demetri Catrakilis), the bulk of the squad was retained for Super Cup 2.0, and some robust new signings bolstered their ranks.

Upon perusing the team sheet of the Wolves, I was struck by two things: none of the Romanian-born players had a “k” in their name (for there is no k in the Romanian language, but I digress…), and 13 of the starting 15 had been capped for their country. Romania has a serious rugby pedigree. Back in the heyday of the amateur eighties, the Sterajii (The Oaks) regularly beat or came close to beating Five Nations teams. Nicolae Ceaușescu was ruling dictator, but their 12,000 players spread over 110 clubs (many of them based in the army and police), were ill-equipped to deal with the professional era that ascended in the nineties, which coincided post-Revolution with the collapse of communism. Despite this, Romania has played in every Rugby World Cup since the inception in 1987, bar the previous one in 2019 (they were disqualified from the last RWC for fielding an ineligible player in the qualifiers). They have since qualified again for the next edition of RWC 2023 in France. Like other countries in the Super Cup, they are using this competition one year out as preparation for rugby’s marquee tournament (the coach of the Wolves is the assistant coach of the National side). Romania’s current World Rugby Ranking #17. Israel has not qualified for RWC (currently far from the mark). The Heat has a different purpose, that is to expose the small pool of local players to top-flight professional rugby, expand and develop that base, all whilst developing a new Israeli start-up rugby club and playing an exciting brand of rugger, in Israel and in different locales around the world.

On to the match report. The Wolves came out howling, and with their first foray into the Heat’s 22m from a lineout on the left touch, mauled the ball forward, and then spread it out to the right. The mid-field defence was poor and their wing Simionescu went over in the corner, untouched, for the opening try in the 6th minute. The conversion was true from the tight angle. The Heat settled down, and with some clever tactical kicking behind the game line, managed to enjoy some territorial advantage. Both sides missed penalties, and handling errors from both teams stymied any decent attacking plays. The RE site had profiled fullback Sebastian Jobb as “one to watch”, based on his attacking running lines and tries scored from last season. On the half-hour mark, Jobb countered with a chip kick ahead on the halfway, and the ball was knocked on by the Wolves player in the subsequent tackle. The Heat regathered and the attack was on, with the Wolves defence not quite set, flyhalf Chait made a clean break up to the 22 and passed out wide to Nacebe on the right wing. He offloaded to flanker Semi Kunatani, who still had some work to outsprint his defender before crashing over for an excellent score. Chait’s conversion was also good. The Heat closed the half out with a good defensive effort, bundling Simionescu out to touch on their line, and repelling two more attacks before the break, 7-7.

Tel Aviv started the second half strongly, forcing penalties at the breakdown, and kicking for touch instead of for posts. The Wolves defended well, before scrummie Brad Thain made a dashing break down the centre of the field from a quick tap, leading to an offside infringement. Chait added 3 points from almost in front of the posts on 48 minutes. Nacebe and Kunatani again combined from the restart for a showy kick and chase. Unfortunately, the bounce of the ball not going to hand to any Heat player. Chait kicked a raking 50:22 to pin the Wolves in their 22m again. Another penalty, and another lineout to the Heat as they backed themselves to score a 5-pointer. This time a lineout drive was controlled well at the back by the hooker Venter, before he peeled around the side of the maul to crash over the line. Chait missed the extras from out wide, but approaching the 60 minute mark, the Heat were full value for their 15-7 lead. The Wolves scored next from a long-range penalty inside the Heat half. 15-10. Simionescu was then late tackled after kicking ahead, and the Wolves set up an attacking lineout, drove to the line, with their replacement hooker going over in similar fashion. The conversion was added and the Wolves were now narrowly up by 2 points with just over a quarter hour to play. The Heat continued to press, and gained a penalty for the tackler not rolling away, restoring a narrow lead 18-17. Their scrum then went into beast mode, with a big defensive shove on 70 minutes, and another in the 75th minute, enabling penalty kicks for territory. Off the lineout, one of the locks for the Wolves was penalized for bringing the maul down illegally. Yellow card. Moments later from broken play, eighth man Veremalua, picked up a loose ball and offloaded to Nacebe, his fellow Fijian flyer on the right wing, who side-stepped his way over the line from 10m out. The conversion was good. 25-17. But there was still time for one more play from the restart. The Wolves pressed for a penalty and were rewarded as fulltime ticked over. This made the final score 25-20, with the hosts awarded a bonus point for finishing within 7 points.

All in all, an excellent away win for the Heat. Their new recruits shone on the day. Justin Theys, the tighthead (previously a stalwart of the UWC Varsity Cup team), put in a massive 80 minute shift. There are now two gold medalist Olympic Rugby Sevens players in the squad, with Kunatani joining Veremalua. Fijians have an innate ability to offload and keep the ball alive (much like Israelis have an inborn ability to argue as soon as they can talk). The former skill being a lot more useful on the rugby field. But this is precisely the value-added the Israeli players gain from playing with this talented multi-cultural squad. A telling moment of progress for me, away from the cameras, just before Venter’s try, was when the run-on left wing, Jamba Ulengo (a fully capped Springbok in 2016) was replaced by local lad Ori Abutbul.

Next up for the Heat are the defending champs, the Black Lion, this coming Sunday, 18.09.2022 at 16:30 (local time in Israel). The game will be in Kutaisi, some 220 km West of Tblisi, In the other fixture in the round, there was a big Georgian derby, with the Black Lion soundly beating RC Batumi 29-3. All the games are live and free on VOD on the Rugby Europe TV site at any time. In case you are still under a rock, get out and go support them!

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