Tel Aviv Heat Rugby team put another feather in their cap with their most recent game, a solid 25-8 home victory over RC Batumi. And with this win, came qualification for the semi-finals of RE Super Cup (even with a game to spare in the pool stage). They qualified last year, of course, but could have been accused of war-profiteering. They benefitted from the Russian teams being banned from all rugby competitions due to Putin’s imperialist aspirations in Ukraine. Last year, TAH had a 3:1 win-loss record over the ENISEI and Lokomotiv Penza, the Russian Club Champions and Runners-Up. This year the Russkies were replaced by the Romanian Wolves and RC Batumi, so measuring progress isn’t exactly linear. However, as I have written previously, the Wolves have a large number of Romanian national team players in their squad, and RC Batumi are the current Didi 10 Champions, the top tier Club competition in Georgia. They are not in the competition to make up numbers. Progress could be directly measured, however, by the results against Black Lion, the inaugural RESC winners. Whereas, last year, the Heat were convincingly beaten in both games, this year they were unlucky in not getting the double over them, with a draw and a 6-point win.
And so to the highlights of the game last Saturday night. Firstly, it was a game TAH controlled from the starting whistle, and they led it from beginning to end. They held much of the territorial advantage in the opening 10 minutes, and from a forward drive towards the Batumi line, scrumhalf Niall Saunders showed a dazzling turn of pace around the fringes to go around the defense, and dive over in the corner for a wonderful opening score. Flyhalf Chait and his educated boot made no mistake from the wide-angled conversion, 7-0 in the 13th minute. This was Saunders’ first start this season, for he only joined up with TAH for the previous game against Black Lion. He was excellent for the team last year, and has since joined the Utah Warriors in MLR. His rugby pedigree is impeccable: his father, Rob (also a #9 in his day), is a former captain of Ireland. He was denied a second score when Jone Taufaga, the outside centre, kicked ahead, and Saunders outsprinted the cover defense, only to be pushed professionally by the Batumi flyhalf from behind, causing him to stumble and not gain control of the ball. The foul play wasn’t picked up, and Batumi were fortunate not to concede a penalty try. In the second half he was moved to left-wing because of injury cover for Jamba Ulenga.
Speak of winging it, Ulenga was wearing #14 jersey on the night, and right-wing Peceli Nacebe wore #11. I thought maybe they were conveying a covert political message to the Israeli public, before our 5th general election in three years next week. Something like, if you go left, there will be nothing right, and if you go right, there will be nothing left. When I asked Coach Musikanth for clarification, he replied No clue they do it sometimes. I still wasn’t convinced, though, because if one doesn’t go left or right, then one needs to go down the centre. And both Centres, Israeli player Idan Eisenberg, also in his first start at #12 and his partner, Taufaga, were resolute in defense the whole game. Anyhow, Chait banked another penalty close to the 30-minute mark, more or less in front of the sticks, after Batumi collapsed a maul. Like the previous game against Black Lion, they took kickable penalties on offer, keeping the scoreboard ticking over. Near the close of the half, the Heat were given a (customary) yellow card (#8 in the last four games, but who is counting?). Prop Wiehahn Herbst was sent to the naughty corner for 10 minutes for dangerous play. In the third round fixture at Batumi in the mud and rain, the home side took full advantage of a yellow card to a front-rower, and won the game through set piece scrumming dominance. But Mheleli Dlamini wasn’t playing that day. The Heat have beefed up their propping department this season, and this sturdy lad, weighing in at over 140 kg, and measuring 1.89 m tall, came on to the park, holding his own defensively (alongside the whole pack of course), to close the half without allowing Batumi any penalties to score.
After the break, Batumi started the better of the teams, winning a couple of penalties and kicking one over, 10-3. But the Heat kept the pressure up, and were awarded a penalty themselves, after a foray over the Batumi 22m line and them straying offside.13-3. The Heat kept up the pressure, and Batumi had a centre sent to the bin for a deliberate knock-down. The home side capitalized on the extra man, and Chait sent a sensational kick-pass out wide to Nacebe on the right, who soared up and plucked the ball from the air, before dotting it down just before dead-ball line. See the highlights here for yourself to see how good it was. The RE commentators comically misidentified him as Ulenga the whole game (apparently, they also can’t tell left from right). The extras weren’t added this time. 18-3. From the restart, the Heat knocked-on, and a powerful scrum by Batumi gave them some momentum. Their replacement #9, Turmanidze, broke round, kicked ahead, won the foot race, and regathered to dive over the line for a brilliant solo effort. The conversion was also missed, and the score remained 18-8. Sebastian Jobb then went on a telling counterattack from fullback inside his half, weaving inside and outside, hugging the right touch, before linking with Taufaga, who passed back to Jobb, who made the final offload to Mitchel Carstens for a wonderful score. Carstens was sporting #7 but he was also ‘’playing out of position’’ at eighthman. Chait made no mistake with the conversion. 25-8. And that was the final score, despite TAH pressing for a bonus point try. Kevin Musikanth declared his satisfaction with the winning effort at the post-match interview, highlighting the fact that three local boys, Idan Eisenberg, Omer Levinson and Ori Abutbul, closed the game in strong fashion.
The final pool game is this Sunday 30 October, at 18:00, at Shlomo Bituach Stadium in Petah Tikvah. They face the Romanian Wolves. There is still all to play, as the big Georgian derby between Black Lion and RC Batumi could still yield a surprise result. The odds are on Black Lion winning at home, but if they slip up, and the Tel Aviv Heat win against the Wolves, the Heat will finish in pole position in the Eastern Conference, earning a home semi-final. Tickets at https://www.telavivheat.com/. There will also be a Guinness experience at the stadium (don’t be afraid of the dark…)