The write-up of this interview got delayed due to several family and work crises that conspired against my journalistic good intentions. After initially meeting at Sun Café on Moshav Batzra, I followed up again in early June, for the low-down on the new Stade Français Paris partnership and the latest campaign of Israel’s rugby team.
This self-styled TOI Rugby Correspondent initially sat down with Kevin Musikanth on 8 February, five days after the terrible, cowardly decision by the Sorry African Rugby Union to withdraw their invitation to TAH to play in the Mzansi Challenge, cowering to BDS pressures. I expected to have a coffee and a cry with him, but this affable fella was remarkably upbeat, wanting only to focus on the positives, and focus on all the Heat had achieved the past year. We touched on some notable achievements of the Israeli National team too, as he wears a twin-hat as Israeli Head Rugby Coach. Musikanth holds a unique place in the annals of modern Israeli history: by my reckoning to date, he is the only professional rugby coach ever to have made aliyah.
DA: Kev, thanks for meeting today. It’s not a fait accompli that we meet now, given the balagan that SARU created. First publicly announcing the invitation, and then withdrawing it not even three days later. We had spoken about doing this interview at the end of last year, and we will talk about the break-out season of TAH and all the good stuff, but we can’t ignore the elephant in the room. When did you first hear about their withdrawn invitation?
KM: Thanks Dave. I just want to emphasize the situation is very sad, but I’ll Ieave all the political statements to the politicians, community leaders and lobbyists. I got the phone call from SARU at around 10:00 on Friday (3 February). They gave no real details, other than they were incredibly sorry, but the Heat can’t play in this tournament in the end. An hour later they released their media statement.
DA: It’s maddening. These BDS f*ckers must have put a gun to Mark Alexander’s head (the president of SARU). Kick them out or we pull the trigger (death threats were in fact later confirmed in a cover story of the South African Jewish Report). But it’s not like SARU and TAH were oblivious to the bad relationship between the South African and Israeli Governments. I just assumed everything was long closed?
KM: I was in Jo’burg last year August, to initiate discussions, when this opportunity first arose, and by December everything was closed, with a tentative fixtures list. We were going to be based in Jo’burg, with our home games at Loftus (Loftus Versfeld stadium in Pretoria, home of the Blue Bulls).
DA: How did the team take it? Where to, from here?
KM: The players took it very badly. There are only seven players of the squad currently in Israel, with most based in South Africa. My coaching team also took it very badly. This is their livelihood, playing and coaching rugby professionally. We are working on a back-up plan, with the main aim to keep them playing before the next Rugby Europe Super Cup (which will kick off later in the year). It’s a RWC year, so we assume the KO for RESC will be later than September. The clubs in the Super Cup from Georgia, Romania and Portugal will have many players representing their respective countries in the World Cup.
DA: Like you said, let’s focus on the good, and let’s get back to the start of last year. Putin goes mad, invades Ukraine, and all Russian teams are banned from World Rugby and Rugby Europe competition. The Heat gets promoted to the inaugural RESC semi-finals, and the first thing you do is go on tour… to South Africa. I love the irony!
KM: The Blue Bulls Rugby Union invited us in March to play three matches against teams in their club structures. The tour was never about the results, though all the games were very close, and it was a brilliant experience playing at Loftus. Rather, the tour was about developing the wider squad and trialing some players. We took the whole Israeli National team too, and gave these guys a run against some of the best semi-professional players in one of the strongest rugby regions in the world. The tour was a great success, and we signed players like Jamba Ulenga, Bradley Thain and Thabiso Mdletshe as a result.
DA: And don’t forget, the tour was somewhat landmark, the first time ever an Israeli rugby team toured the Republic. Still, you were probably a bit undercooked going into the semi-final against the Lusitanos in Lisbon.
KM: We had some new combinations for that game, and were 19-17 up at half-time. We were leading by a single point going into the last quarter, but the hosts stepped up a notch and scored two further tries and a penalty to win comfortably in the end. It was disappointing not to make the final, but it was still a good end to the first Super Cup, and a good end to our first season. Especially since it was so interrupted by Covid, and we played only one game at home.
DA: Then, over the summer, the Maccabiah came to town. The SA side, endorsed by past legends like Joel Stransky and Victor Matfield, and current Springbok coach, Jacque Nienaber, were a class above the rest in 15’s. It was a bit like brother against brother, where several of the TAH players turned out for the Jewish Bokke, and played against some of their teammates in the Israeli side. But you turned the tables on them in the 7’s tournie, and Israel won the gold. How important was that victory?
KM: It was a massive victory for Israel. The first time we had won Maccabiah gold in 7’s. The short game is so important for developing player skills (passing, off-loading, kicking, tackling, sprinting etc.) that spillover into 15’s. Look how many current stars in top SA Rugby teams started off in 7’s: Kwagga Smith, Kurt-Lee Arendse, Seabelo Senatla, Cornal Hedricks to name but a few. The AB’s also use 7’s as a path to 15’s development, see the Ioane brothers as examples in their current squad. But there is one problem here.
DA: Sure, don’t forget (Christian) Cullen and (Jonah) Lomu were 7’s stars before exploding onto the AB 15’s team. I know what you are going to say.
KM: 7’s is just not equipped for developing the Heavies! The average tight forward is just too big and bulky to play 7’s effectively at a top level. We need an entirely different skills set for scrums and lineouts in the traditional 15-man code. The coaching is specialized. A team can’t win repeatedly without a strong scrum and tight five, and that’s where we lack depth in Israel.
DA: And then after the Maccabiah, you guys jet off again. This time to the US of A, to Colorado, for the RugbyTown Sevens. Not too many readers or fans are familiar with this tournament, but it has a pedigree?
KM: Sure, it was started as a rugby tournament between the branches of the US armed forces. As rugby has developed in the USA, it’s now probably the biggest domestic Sevens tournament in that country. TAH took a side there and we did really well, getting to the quarter finals, where we lost there to the eventual winners.
DA: So, in Sevens we are trending upwards. Give us a sense where Israel stands, relative to other teams in Europe? There is an Olympic Qualification tournament for Paris 2024 later in the year in Poland, with teams like Belgium, Lithuania, Czech Republic all playing.
KM: We are very close to all those teams. If I am not mistaken, Romania is also playing, and we have beaten Romania in the abbreviated game. Olympic qualification in 2028 for Israel isn’t in the realm of science fiction.
DA: Let’s get back to TAH and 15’s. Super Cup 2.0 kicks off last year in September, and the Heat are firing in pool play.
KM: We did really well in our pool. We were unbeaten at home, and we became the first team in this year’s tournament to beat the Black Lion, the Champions. In fact, we almost got the double over them, we had a chance to win at the death but got the draw out of the away game. We had one bad game (in the rain and mud against Batumi), where we got our tactics wrong.
DA: Then came the highlight of the year (in my opinion), a game against Saracens in London (who have just been crowned the Gallagher Premier League Champions). How did this fixture even come about? A bit of chutzpah, asking to play one of the biggest Rugby Clubs in the world?
KM: The TAH CEO, Pete Sickle, is an astute guy. He knew Sarries had a free weekend that weekend, as Worcester Warriors and WASPS were axed from the English league at the start of the season due to financial issues. He contacted them and asked if we could come play at their home, StoneX Stadium, in London. Not only did they agree, but they were fantastic hosts.
DA: And the result is now cast in Rugby Union history. What a victory for the Heat. Squidge Rugby tweeted about it (Rugby’s biggest youtuber), and he included the game in his Top Moments of 2022.
KM: It was a great result for us. We looked as if we have been around for twenty years. We all know it wasn’t their 1st team on the pitch (their England internationals played against the Bokke in Twickenham the day before), and they played a lot of Academy guys. But TAH 29 Saracens 26 was the score everyone was talking about.
DA: It was a brilliant result, and only as close as that because you guys took your foot off the gas right at the end, and they scored 2 tries, but it was even better prep for the semi-final against the Lusitanos. And this time you reversed the outcome from the inaugural tournament. There was only actually one team on the pitch that day, and the Heat controlled the game from the kick-off.
KM: As a coach, I think this was our best game of the season. We led from the start, were composed, and made sure to shut them out by mid-way in the 2nd half. Many of their squad had just played for Portugal in the final RWC 23 qualification tournament, which they won. So I think they were still in rugby heaven, which made it that more difficult for them to get up for the game.
DA: Any regrets in the Final? The Black Lion looked possessed out there in the opening quarter in Tbilisi, got some lucky calls, and took a big lead.
KM: Our aim was to make the Final, and I believe we were worthy finalists. Having got there, we probably displayed a bit of club immaturity. Too few experienced heads on the park, and not playing tight final’s rugby. At half-time we were too focused on the red card that should have been dished out to their captain. We outscored them in the second half, and were there at the end of the battle, pushing for another try, but it was too little too late.
DA: If one can’t win, then I guess runner-up is next best. But what’s with all the yellow cards last season? The TAH must have copped the most yellow cards – you had at least 2 or 3 every game. Does the TAH have a discipline problem?
KM: Laughing. My team always plays with the most heart. But we did win that competition!
DA: Any outsider spending a bit of time with the team, coaches and support staff, can see what a great spirit there is in TAH. Where is the team based, and how do you build up this great vibe?
KM: Our training base is at Wingate Sports Institute. I live in Netanya too, and we wanted the team to be close to base, so management organized that the Ramada hotel be HQ for the team during the season. All the coaching staff stay with me in my apartment, which makes coaching meetings easy to run… As for the team culture, it is definitely amazing. I don’t think it’s one specific thing. Most of the foreign players in the squad weren’t getting a lot of playing time, on the fringe of bigger squads, and they come here looking for a new opportunity, to be pioneers of professional rugby in the Holy Land. The local players and their families are incredibly welcoming, and the whole Team management is intimate and involved in all the player logistics. I’ve never worked in a corporate position, but everyone tells me it has a typical Israeli start-up vibe, where everyone has freedom within agreed boundaries, and is multi-tasking to build up the club. We also changed the focus in the second season, where we stopped calling players by their country of origin, because practically we are one big family. Everyone involved in this great project is having the time of our lives, so watch this space!
DA: A word about your coaching team? You had a young Demetri Catrakilis running your backline as your fly half in 2010 at False Bay club, before he moved to UCT, and you followed in 2014, where you won the Varsity Cup in that famous comeback of 2014?
KM: Demetri was a great schoolboy player, so I can’t claim to have discovered him, but he certainly became a stand-out flyhalf in Cape Town. Playing for me as a 19-year-old he went on to win the Varsity Cup in his debut season with UCT in 2011. From this exposure, he went on to debut with Western Province, and then had stints with the Southern Kings, Stormers, Montpellier and Harlequins. He wanted to get into coaching, and I was looking for an assistant and a kicking coach for the Heat. Our results speak for themselves – I think we have a great attacking and kicking game. Demetri is an exceptional person and coach, our relationship now extends 13 years, we are practically family.
DA: Agreed, but a good rugby team can’t just have two ex-flyhalves coaching it. Your scrum coach is also a confidant of yours from the old country?
KM: Sure, Paul Day, is our scrum doctor. This guy has been coaching at clubs and schools, mainly in the Western Cape, for decades. He is honestly one of the best in the business, and we are lucky to have him at the TAH. Our scrum stats speak for themselves, and we built a formidable scrum over the two years, competing with the Georgian teams who are renowned to be one of the best. Paulie, a.k.a. the Godfather, has been coaching with me since 2013.
DA: And your lineout guru is another crony from False Bay? Mike Poppmeier?
KM: I also coached Mike (Pops), back in the day, at the Bay. Together we won the SLB league in Cape Town, him as captain and me as coach. He’s a capped International, having played for Germany. We also have Nimrod Kaplan, a former captain of Israel, as another assistant. A big goal of the TAH is to develop not only local players but also local coaches.
DA: If the whole coaching team stays with you, who is the best chef?
KM: It’s a cozy arrangement, but in the end, it’s the Head Coach who needs to be the Head Chef in the kitchen, amongst all the cooks. (Pops, in fact, trained as a chef, though he kept this very quiet initially). As a coach you need a soft heart, but a thick skin. You are the reason if the team loses, but when the team wins, it’s because of the players. There’s a lot of meaning to be derived from the field, but sometimes losing feels very lonely. As José Mourinho (the football coach) said, “If you are not able to coach the big players, you are not able to coach anyone.” This keeps me grounded, as no coach lasts forever. I’ve had the privilege of coaching the top team in 12 different institutions in my career to date, but any good coach must have the ability to pack his bag at a moment’s notice.
DA: Staying on the coaching topic. We were supposed to meet last week, but Cecil Afrika was in town. What was South Africa’s most decorated Seven’s player doing here?
KM: Cecil was running a clinic for local coaches. Apart from the local clubs, we have u18 teams and women teams to develop as well. We have 100 girls/women registered in Israel, so lots of potential in the womens’ game. Last year Frankie Horne and Philip Snyman (also past Blitzboks) ran clinics.
DA: SARU closed one door, but another one opened. And I can understand any level of trust with SARU must now be very limited, if ever there were any thoughts on giving them a second chance in future years. But how about this newly disclosed deal with Stade Français Paris? Are we going to see international players like Nicholas Sanchez, Marcos Kremer, Sekou Macalou come play in Israel? Or conversely, will we see TAH play in Paris?
KM: You never know what can happen in the future. The roller coaster of rugby surprises us all daily. If you had asked me five years ago that a team based out of Israel would beat Saracens, make a major European final, and have two Olympic gold medalists as well as Springboks living and playing in Israel, I would have laughed and thought that was some kind of fantasy.
DA: The Israeli National Team just completed its best ever campaign. You won the Rugby Europe Conference 1 South competition and earned the right for promotion in the Trophy competition by playing against Czech Republic. How influential has the Tel Aviv Heat been in developing local players? And what can be done for them to play more (there are only 4-5 international games for Israel in a year at best) and probably 12-15 top-flight games are needed to really progress?
KM: There is no question that the TAH has uplifted the playing abilities of our local lads. We have also managed to send seven players overseas to play club rugby (Uri Gail in France, Omer Levinson in USA, Aaron Emerik and Jared Sichel in South Africa, Nitzan Reizel in Romania, Thomas Burden in England, and Yotam Shulman in Australia. An eighth player, Gilad Vardi, is about to head to Germany. Here they are exposed to more game time over the year, over and above the TAH season in RESC. The whole TAH project is still very much in its infancy, and we need everyone to get behind it. We have just seen what is possible with our Soccer team making the semi-finals of the FIFA u20 World Cup, beating Brazil. If ever there is an example of what is possible as an Israeli sport’s team, here it is. We have the aspirations as a country to get to the World Cup and the Olympic Games. It starts by winning our conference, having a plan, having some backing, focusing on it every day of our lives as a collective dream, and eventually it will become a reality. There are no half measures here. When the TAH is in town, the national players who are training in the squad, and alongside world class players, totally look the part.
DA: Czech are ranked #35 in the World currently, and Israel #61. I am not sure all readers may appreciate the current rankings, but 26 places is equivalent to #1 – #4 Ireland / France / New Zealand / South Africa vs #27 – #30 Switzerland / Brazil / Belgium / South Korea. I checked, in 2004, a year after World Rugby started publishing rankings, Israel was ranked #88 and Czech #27. So, losing by 45 points is still a measure of progress?
KM: Any head coach will tell you that whether you lose by 1 point or by 50 points, losing is the worst thing in the world for a competitor. And believe me when I say that the most competitive individuals are head coaches. Yes, many like me may get philosophical about losses, but in the end, winning is way better than losing! The truth, however, is that Czech are ranked #35 for a reason, and Israel is ranked a lot lower for a reason too: we have a lot of growing to do, not only on the field, but off the field as well. The players do their best when on the field and many of them are believing in bigger victories. We need our national program to be bigger and better for sure, and the game against Czech illustrated this. Our average team age is only 25 years old, so I am very positive with this group, and together with the Heat, we can carry on progressing and improving.
DA: Feel free to drop some names. Which “big-name” players have you had the pleasure to coach, at one stage or another in their careers.
KM: Listen, all my players give me pride as a coach. Not just the ”stars”. That’s the essence of rugby as a team sport. If you are pressing me for “big names”, then apart from Demetri Catrakilis, Huw Jones (who became a Scottish International) was also in that team. I have coached Dylan Sage (Blue Bulls and Blitzboks). I coached Jacques Potgieter, Nick Groom and Josh Strauss, all recently with the Heat in the first season. Also, in that season of TAH, Gabriel Ibotiye was brilliant for us (now with Bristol Bears). As a school-boy director of rugby, I also coached future Springbok Sikhumbuzo Notshe, back in 2013 at Wynberg Boys High School. I also take great pride in players who approached me for one-on-one professional development. Players like Matthew Macdonald (Irish Sevens) and Alex Groves (Bristol Bears and Sale Sharks) both of whom spent a few years with me as aspiring young players, doing extra work on their game and now reaping the benefit of that hard work. I am also super proud of Sebastiaan Jobb, who debuted with the Blitzboks at the Hong Kong 7s this year. He has been with the Heat and Kibbutz Yizre’el for two seasons now.
DA: On a personal level, how have you managed to settle down in Israel over the last few years?
KM: Initially, the travelling and being on the road constantly makes it difficult to feel really settled. And some things of course suffer, like one’s personal relationships. However, having said that, with the National Programme gaining momentum, and the Heat project and my base now being in Netanya, perhaps the idea of “settling down” is not that far off, so long as I am holding a rugby ball while doing so!
DA: Kev, thanks so much for your time. Like you said, this team is for all religions, all races, and for many players who didn’t have an opportunity elsewhere. Add some Israeli seichel (intellect) and you have powerful mix for success.
KM: Israel is the perennial underdog! If David had met Goliath on the rugby field, he would have ankle-tapped him to bring him down. At the Heat, we are looking to build something big and beautiful for the whole country to be proud of while helping our national team get to the World Cup. With a bit of belief and a lot of support, I don’t think we are that far off.