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The Tel Aviv Heat fall just short in Tbilisi

Due to the dearth of local rugby journalists, my coverage of Israel’s first professional rugby team continues here in the TOI. The Heat lost their second ‘’home’’ game 31-34 (Half time 12-19) against the Russian side Enisei-STM on Wednesday 15 December in Tbilisi, in the Eastern Conference of the Super Cup. Get to know the team here  https://www.telavivheat.com/ and follow them on all social media platforms.

Every passionate rugby supporter wishes to go on tour to watch their team play away from home. My last ‘’mini-tour’’ was November 2018, in Edinburgh, to watch the Springboks take on Scotland at Murrayfield. With the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) ranking Tel Aviv as the most expensive city in the world in 2021, I was curious where Tbilisi might be in the standings, assuming one could party like it was 2019. Apparently, many digital nomads have drifted to Tbilisi to work over the pandemic period as it’s an attractive (and cheap) place to live. When I looked up the exchange rate between the shekel and Georgian lari, I was surprised to find their value at parity (basically 1:1). Less surprisingly, my brief market research concluded that beers in Tbilisi cost 4-6 GEL. I suppose the last time beer was ever that cheap in Israel, Begin was still the Prime Minister? However, a quick city break to watch the Heat play the Russian Club champions in the Georgian capital (and drink beer) remained a fleeting thought. Both teams were there because of travel restrictions, and the venue was a neutral one, as Enisei-STM are based far away in Krasnoyarsk. Apparently, Chekov, travelling as a student on a train ride through the region, described it as the most beautiful city in Siberia.

Enisei also have a fair sprinkling of Saffas on their roster, making the Russian Champs a tough proposition, and the first game between these two teams saw the Heat edge the Enisei by the same score, 34-31 in a tight affair. Last Wednesday was a chilly night, only 4℃ at KO. Maybe the Heat weren’t warmed up enough, as a couple of missed tackles in the mid-field from a lineout in the first minute, and the flank, Olivier, scored a soft try near the posts. It got worse when first-centre Buliruarua went off for a HIA (head injury assessment) at five minutes, and then another couple of missed tackles around the fringes of a ruck led to Enisei’s second try. Then the game really came alight when an outstanding break by second-centre Ibitoye put Saunders into space, and the scrummie managed to pass over his shoulder to right-wing Petero, who took it low and did exceptionally well to control the ball and crash over the whitewash. Chait added the extras, and at ten minutes and 7-14 down, it looked as though the Heat had finally warmed up properly. But lapses in concentration were still there, and Enisei scored another try almost immediately, again courtesy of Olivier, after lackadaisical defending at a 5m lineout.

The fullback, Job, again looked the business, coming into the line on the right touchline and going around his defender to look like he was in for a score. But a peculiar decision by the ref and line judge stopped him in full flight, and a scrum was awarded instead to the Heat, for an earlier infringement and no advantage. Later in the half, the Heat were playing with more territory, forcing Enisei to defend, and their prop was yellow-carded. Right on the half, Ibitoye kicked a perfectly weighted grubber from the 22m line, and left wing Houlston chased it to win the foot race by diving on the ball. The conversion was missed, and the half ended 12-19. The Russian team had mixed up the play well, attacking the wide channels, playing both the short side and open side, and showing a willingness to run also from within their half, but the Heat were their own worst enemy, with too many defensive lapses in the opening period.

Houlston went in for his second try early in the next half, the ball given plenty of air through the backs. A few phases before, it was Petero who made a strong run down the right, and the ball spun out wide to the left, where Houlston still had plenty to do before he could score. If rugby is the game they play in heaven, then no doubt Houlston’s legendary uncle, the late James Small, was looking down and smiling at his nephew. The ding-dong battle continued, with Enisei refusing to kick for posts, kicking for touch instead and backing their attack near the goal line. This paid dividends as Olivier crashed over for his hat-trick. Some minutes later, the passage of play repeated itself, and it was déjà vu when Olivier went over for his fourth try. This hulking number seven, a recent signing for Enisei, schooled in Springs and played for the Valke, was a menace the whole game. At 17-31, there was plenty for the Heat to do to get back in the game.

After Enisei broke out of their half from running it audaciously near their line, the ball went loose and Ibitoye was on hand to pick up and make a clear run for the line, with the opposition defence at sixes and sevens, not having reset. This converted try made it 24-31 with the last quarter to play. Players from both teams were starting to look tired, and when Chait launched a high kick from the Heat’s half into space behind the defensive line, Saunders was quickest to gather the bouncing ball on the 10m and score under the posts. It was 31:31 with a quarter hour still to play and it was anyone’s game. Enisei continued to run and make a game of it, and were awarded a couple of penalties near the end. They missed the first, but got the second kick over in the 79th minute to make it 31-34. The Heat got into a great attacking position with a 5m scrum, but a poor final play and the ball was turned over, the game lost.

Enisei had to win the game to stay in the hunt for a berth in the semi-finals, and indeed now top the log of the Eastern Conference. They came out to play, making the Heat tackle 116 times, compared to their 64. Back in Israel, the Heat know they are in this same position against the Black Lions on Saturday night. A win and they will leapfrog both teams to top the log. A loss, and they will remain in third place, ruing the 28 missed tackles in this game.  Coach Kevin Musinkanth may consider tweaking the starting line up due to the very short turnaround between games.

The last pool game against the Georgian Black Lions is this Saturday night 18 December (KO 20:00) at Shlomo Bituach Stadium. It is indeed an auspicious occasion – the first professional rugby union game played on Israeli soil. Come and support them and be part of history

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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