This is the approximate distance between Shlomo Bituach Stadium, in Petah Tikvah, and the Budapest Rugby Centre, where the Tel Aviv Heat won through to the final of Rugby Europe Super Cup 2023. For the second year running they will contest the final. At time of writing, it seems that RE has scheduled this match to take place next week in Tbilisi, on 22 December 2023, against the two-time Champions, Black Lion.
The Heat would have played zero games at home this season. Thank you, Hamas. In fact, after reviewing all twenty of their RESC games to date, the vast majority, sixteen, have been played away. COVID and lockdowns and flight bans and war haven’t helped in scheduling games at home. This is shite for local fans, but in a way complements its Start-up Nation DNA: that is take advantage of home-grown brains and talent and capital, add some initiative and lots of chutzpah, recruit an astute coaching team and talented players, and then take your product to the World! It helps that this is a team who likes the road. In fact, what seems like a lifetime ago, the last time the TAH played at home was 30 October 2022, against the Romanian Wolves. This same team also happened to be their semi-final opponents. After the last ‘’home’’ game in in Limassol, Cyprus, where local authorities disallowed any spectators, the “home” semi-final was moved to Budapest.
The heavy downpour and lightning in the previous game held them in good stead for the wet, heavy conditions in Budapest. The field was waterlogged in patches, and it was chilly at 2 °C, with remnants of icy snow around the edges. But 500 spectators braved the cold and rain, and they wouldn’t have been disappointed at the home team’s performance. The Wolves were on the ”puff” side of the draw, and had won all their pool games with ease against a Dutch team, Delta, a Belgium team, the Brussels Devils, and a new side from Czech Republic, Bohemia Rugby Warriors. I suspected they might be ‘’under-cooked’’ coming into this fixture, with a cosmopolitan-looking team consisting of Romanian World Cup players and journeymen from South Africa and the Pacific Islands. But they fronted the TAH in the opening quarter, leading 6-3 on penalties. Then on an attack in the Wolves twenty-two, a penalty for offside play, a kick for touch 5m out, a bullseye dart from McMillan Muller to Cal Smid at the resultant lineout, a forward drive, and the hooker, Muller, crashed over for the opening try. The kicking game of the TAH was also accurate, with the Wolves’ Back Three struggling under the dark, rainy skies. Some enterprising interplay and good handling between backs and forwards (very good considering the wet ball), and James Verity-Amm rounded off a lovely try on the right touch. Chait converted both tries and the Heat were full value for their 17 – 6 lead at the half.
The second half started well too. A big scrum penalty won within their half. A booming touch-finder by Chait close to the corner flag. Another soaring Smid who plucked the ball out of the sky, and Kunatani crashed over, keeping his perfect record of scoring in every game this season. The Heat had all but booked their flights to the final by this stage. The Subs came on and finished off the good work on the day. Niall Saunders’ control of the game around the fringes was again excellent, keeping his forwards on the front foot most of the time. Then came a ‘’big man’’ try. Nothing is more splendid than a 150 kg prop running a superb line off his scrumhalf’s pop pass, less than 10 m out, and gliding over the try line like a gazelle. Mheli Dlamini’s impact off the bench this year for TAH is not dissimilar to Ox Nché’s performance for South Africa this past World Cup. Chait again converted both tries, and the game was closed at 31-6, solid and workmanlike.
And now for the final. The Black Lion won their semi-final with ease, cruising past the Iberians 41-0. They then made their debut in the EPCR Challenge Cup this last week, losing narrowly at home to the English team, Gloucester, 10-15. They play the Welsh team, Scarlets, this Friday, before taking on Tel Aviv Heat next week. The Georgian team earned the right to participate in the Challenge Cup by winning the RESC the last year. Apart from the trophy, a qualifying place in this elite Club tournament is potentially up for grabs in the Final. The team would have learnt from their mistakes in the Final last year. The stakes are now higher. May the Rugby Gods smile down upon TAH and bestow upon them victory in our time.