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The Rugby History Boys – powered by MyHeritage! The highlights of Tel Aviv Heat’s first year

With the Maccabiah Rugby tourney starting this week, it will be a welcome opportunity to see some of the players of the Tel Aviv Heat, Israel’s first professional rugby team, return to the pitch. It’s heating up (pardon the pun) to be a one of the tightest Maccabiah rugby contests yet. I thought it helpful to sum up the highlights of the past twelve months before TAH get stuck into a new season, after the summer.

@TelAvivHeat was launched (with zero fanfare) just over a year ago. Starting from scratch, the franchise was built driving head forward over the top, with a good dose of start-up mentality by the founders, with clever player-coach networking and recruiting, and with a team spirit imbuing solidarity and inclusivity. The roster for the first season included hardened internationals, wily journeymen and exciting young talent. The players included home-grown sabras from Israel, South Africans, Fijians, Namibians, as well as the odd Englishman, Scotsman and Irishman.  As individuals, some of their achievements till then included winning Olympic Rugby Gold, winning top domestic rugby competitions in South Africa, England and France, and even representing their country at the World Cup and u20 World Cup.  But all these past efforts paled to their new challenge: establishing Israel as a powerhouse amongst rugby’s elite. The setting for this opportunity would be the inaugural Rugby Europe Super Cup, a club competition with teams from Georgia, Russia, Spain, Netherlands, Belgium and Portugal.

And so, a little over three months from launch, on October 16, these Rugby History Boys ran on to the pitch at Avchala Rugby Stadium, in Tblisi, Georgia, to take on a very strong Black Lion team. This was the pre-tournament favourite (and the eventual winner), and is a shadow Georgian National Team on any other day. To put it into perspective, Georgia beat Italy over the last weekend, and are currently ranked 12th in the World. Israel is ranked a lowly #59. The TAH lost that first game, but came back strongly to beat the two Russian teams in their pool. Winning 2/3 on the road was a good start. Then Omicron struck. Israel was under closure, and suddenly a regular three game home-ground schedule over the same number of weeks was condensed all into a grueling nine days in December. The first two return ‘’home games’’ were played in a neutral venue, Georgia (against the Russian teams). A comfortable win and an agonizing three-point loss meant that their final home game against Black Lion was a must-win affair to go through to the semi-finals.

This home game was truly at last on Israeli soil, and Shlomo Bituach Stadium in Petah Tikvah was a superb venue. The Hebrew date corresponded to 14 Tevet, and a full moon lit up the night sky. Historically, and according to our traditions, Am Yisrael is at optimal strength during this phase of the moon. And all the supporters would have certainly left emboldened by the overall spectator experience. There was a carnival like atmosphere with fans dressed up like in a Seven’s festival, TAH merchandise was on sale, and local Kafkazi fans mingled with the Israeli rugby-loving public. In the end, they were outmuscled by four tries to seven, but for everyone at the stadium on the night, it was one for the history books: we had witnessed the very first professional game of rugby being played in Israel.

Enter the new year, Putin decided to play Lord of War, and suddenly all Russian teams were barred from international sporting events. This included Enisei-STM, the team from Krasnoyarsk, who had come 2nd in the pool, ahead of TAH. Apparently, Chekov, travelling as a student on a train ride through the region, described Krasnoyarsk as the most beautiful city in Siberia. I am sure it’s picturesque there (and cheaper than living in Tel Aviv), but the bottom-line was that the Tel Aviv Heat had now earned a place in the semi-finals against the top team from the other pool, the Lusitanos from Portugal.

But before that game happened, what else possibly could this team have undertaken in their first year of operations? To prepare for the semi-final, a three-game tour of South Africa was arranged, playing against club teams connected to the mighty Blue Bulls from Pretoria. Let’s pause to consider that. A professional Israeli rugby team. Touring. In South Africa. The current World Cup Champs. Playing at Loftus Versveld. No, it’s not science fiction, rather a product of a long rugby partnership between the countries originating many decades previously. It is a footnote in rugby union history that Northern Transvaal (the amateur predecessor of the Blue Bulls) toured Israel in January 1976, over 46 years ago. So in some ways, this was a return tour for the Israeli team.

The semi-final was held in Lisbon on the first day Pesach. The Lusitanos are also another National team in disguise. Portugal. Ranked #19 in the World currently, the Portuguese are still in with a shout of qualifying for the next World Cup in France in 2023. On the day, the TAH held a slim one-point leading going into the final quarter, but two late tries by the hosts ended any hope of a place in the final. And so ended their historical first season. But do not despair, Israeli rugbyphiles can see many of the TAH players in action, starting this Friday at Wingate.

The opening rugby game of this year’s Maccabiah will be an absolute cracker: South Africa vs. Israel. The Jewish Bokke will be determined to regain the title that Israel won for the first time back in 2013. The Saffa team is loaded with a captain from the Stormers URC team, a vice captain from the Sharks Currie Cup team, and some key TAH players, with a very strong pack. But underdog victories in rugger happen more than often. The more established Israeli team, with settled combinations, will fancy their chances if they can keep parity in the set pieces. Many of their key players too enjoyed the benefits of a professional set up under the Tel Aviv Heat. The point-man on the field, though, will be Israeli coach, Kevin Musinkanth. Musinkanth essentially wears two hats: he is also the Director of Rugby for the TAH.  No doubt he will be looking too with interest at the USA, Team GB and Australian teams for potential recruits. The USA team, and defending champs, have a fair sprinkling of players from the MLR (Major League Rugby) and are the dark horses of the tournament.

For a team making history, it should be fitting that the chief sponsor of Tel Aviv Heat, MyHeritage, is a company all about helping humankind discovering and documenting personal family history. What’s not to like about a company whose products are designed to assist every man, woman and child alive, and connect them with every man, woman and child from the past? Like the game of rugby, it’s beautiful.

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 HeidelbergCement Group
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