The Tel Aviv Heat win their first home game – 2,000 km from home!

Since there is a gap of serious rugby reporting in the Israeli Press, allow me to fill in the blanks. The Heat won their first ‘’home’’ game 33-14 (Half time 9-6) with a bonus point win against the Russian side Lokomotiv Penza last Friday 10 December, to sit second on the log of the Eastern Conference in the Super Cup. Get to know the team here  https://www.telavivheat.com/ and on all social media platforms.

With my first post about the Tel Aviv Heat on 28 November, the Omicron variant had just emerged in South Africa. I had a sneaking suspicion that the Heat’s first home game, originally scheduled for 5 December, would be at risk from Israel’s stringent travel restrictions. My suspicion was confirmed, as Rugby Europe updated the fixture list, with the home game scheduled for 11 December also postponed.

The two games (both against Russian teams) were subsequently moved to Georgia, and classified as ‘’home fixtures’’. Google maps calculated the distance from Shlomo Bituach  Stadium in Petah Tikvah to Rustavi to be approx. 2,000 km. If your knowledge of Georgian geography is a bit rusty, that’s 25 km southeast of the capital, Tbilisi. I don’t wish to sound like a grouch and rant, but the maxim from George Orwell’s Animal Farm rings true here: All sports teams in Israel are equal, some are more equal than others. Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team happened to host Unics Kazan (who coincidently also happen to hail from Russia) in a regular Euroleague game on 9 December at Menora Mivtachim Arena. End of rant.

The game last Friday in Rustavi kicked off at 12:00 Israel time. I did manage to watch it entirely, at my leisure, recorded here Tel-Aviv Heat v Lokomotiv Penza (rugbyeurope.eu). And what a match, with the Heat displaying character and gladiatorial combat to defend their try line for 10 minutes of extra time, preventing Penza from scoring a try at the end, and protecting their bonus point awarded for scoring three tries more than the opposing team.

The Heat looked energetic in the opening half. The half-back pair of Saunders and Chait controlled the game well, with Saunders displaying some accurate box-kicking to keep them going forward. They forced three penalties from open play, with Chait kicking all of them through the sticks. Their momentum was halted by some indiscipline (two high tackles resulted in two yellow cards) as well as three scrum penalties allowed Penza to kick over a couple of three-pointers of their own. There wasn’t too much running rugby, though fullback Sebastiaan Job managed one dazzling counterattack starting just outside his 22m line. Second-centre Gabriel Ibitoye then made a barn-storming run through several Penza defenders, crashing over the try line. The ref adjudged it to be held up (there was no TMO to consult), though the replays suggested to me that the try was good. Saunders came close to the line after a sniping run just on halftime. The half ended 9-6 to the Heat who had made most of the play, with Penza doing well to keep the score line tight.

Penza started strongly in the second half. After a period of attacking repeatedly inside the Heat’s twenty-two, opting for scrums instead of kicking for posts, they scored a well-deserved try out near the left touchline. The conversion went wide, but Penza were up by two points.  Some minutes later yet another scrum penalty was given away, this time the Ref talking to all the big boys in the front row, warning them to scrum forwards, not upwards. Penza kicked it over, and on the hour mark, were now enjoying some momentum with a five point lead. But that’s as good as it got for the ‘’visiting’’ side. The Heat then stepped it up several notches. Job made some elusive runs when joining the line from fullback, and after several phases of the ball being recycled, first centre and adopted Yizreel Kibbutznik, Builruarua, bulldozed his way over for a very well-worked try.  Chait missed his conversion, and the scores were tied 14-14. Soon after, eighth man, Bothma, stole the ball in broken play inside the Heat half. He broke through the midfield, side-stepping and booted it ahead in a play reminiscent of the legendary All Black Zinzan Brooke. The lottery bounce of the rugby ball made it difficult for the Penza fullback to gather, and a chasing Ibitoye pounced on the loose ball, cantering over the line unopposed. He unselfishly popped it up to Saunders to dot down, a lovely touch, considering the pair were former teammates at Harlequins, and the Irish scrumhalf relinquished his contract there in 2020 because of a medical condition. Chait added the conversion, and the Heat led by seven. The Israeli side was controlling proceedings at the breakdown now. Bothma tapped and ran a penalty 5m from the Penza line, and the big Namibian, supported by other forwards, crashed over for the Heat’s third try.  And as the full-time regulation 80 minutes passed, Ibitoye stepped past several tired defenders and drove over, capping off an excellent day in the office. This fourth try was all-important as it brought with it a crucial bonus point. By this time, all the subs were on the field, and I think the Ref’s Rolex was running slowly. Penza threw everything to finish strongly, and he handed out another yellow card, and penalized the Heat repeatedly, ending the second half only after an epic 50 minutes. In a post-match interview, Coach Kevin Musinkanth expressed satisfaction that his Israeli side showed big character in holding them out, as a try conceded would have meant that bonus point was cancelled.

The bonus point may still be crucial for deciding log positions and a potential home semi-final. All in all, the Heat attacked the space well and had a good chasing game. Their defensive lines from phase play were solid. However, better discipline is needed, as three yellow cards and the numerous scrum penalties conceded would likely be punished by more clinical opposition. If you happen to be in Tbilisi this Wednesday 15 December, make a point of getting to the Avchala Stadium to support them against another Russian team, Enisei-STM (KO 20:00 local time and 18:00 in Israel). The game will be streamed live on the Rugby Europe site Rugby Europe Live. Otherwise, barring anything vaguely resembling a force majeure, don’t ruck about, grab your tickets for the last pool game against the Georgian Black Lions this Saturday night 18 December  (KO 20:00) at Shlomo Bituach Stadium.

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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