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Fun and games in SA for Israel’s rugby team

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From having a braai to spotting wildlife on a game drive, Tel Aviv Heat’s players enjoyed South Africa during the team’s five-match tour in the country.

Some of them went to shul in Pretoria before having Shabbos dinner. “In Israel, we sit in the shul and afterwards we go to homes,” says the Heat’s Israeli lock, Misha Eli. “In South Africa, it’s different because after the service, everyone was sitting and eating in the shul like this huge family. It was an amazing thing and not expected.”

Says the Heat’s captain, Renaldo Bothma, “The boys really loved coming to South Africa, being in camp, exploring a bit of the country, and just seeing what the culture and the rugby are like. It was a good experience for all of them. The boys went around in Pretoria, looked at a couple of malls, and just saw how things were.”

Additionally, the Heat spent a night at a lodge, and received invitations to watch a few Blue Bulls’ games which, Bothma says, “were quite fun and unique for them”.

On Friday, 25 March, the team had a golf day to raise awareness for Israel’s first professional rugby team.

Israel has only two golf courses – one in Caesarea and another in Ga’ash. “It was fun for the boys to come out and see what golf is about,” says Bothma, a 1.9m-tall loose forward. “I think it was just good publicity for the team.”

Bothma believes the team could have performed better on the field.

After losing two games against Northam Rhinos in Limpopo, the Kevin Musikanth-coached side were beaten 35-7 and 47-10 by ABE MIDAS Naka Bulle in Pretoria on Wednesday, 23 March 2022. Loftus 200 then beat the Heat 33-29 at Loftus Versfeld Stadium on Saturday, 26 March, in the curtain-raiser to the Blue Bulls’ United Rugby Championship match against Welsh side Dragons Rugby.

“The results weren’t great for us as a team, but we lacked some valuable time in terms of the number of sessions we were able to do,” says Bothma. “It was such short notice. A lot of the guys obviously just flew in, and we had one or two days to prepare and then play. That’s always going to be something tough for us as the Heat if we have these types of games. Unfortunately, we don’t have the luxury of having the boys together for, like, a month.”

Having lived in Pretoria and played for South African teams such as the Sharks, Bothma found it easy to help his teammates acclimatise to the country. “I set up a session with boxing and stuff like that just to give them a bit of a different feel to what they are used to in Israel.”

Eli says South African rugby is tougher and more physical than it is in the Holy Land. “It’s amazing rugby. It’s a lot more real rugby. In Europe, it’s more soft rugby,” he says.

Eli recalls how he took up rugby 16 years ago. “For six months, my friend told me, ‘Please come with me to the rugby.’ I said, ‘Bro, I don’t know nothing about rugby.’ I go for the first time. I’m standing in the middle just after kick-off. I just catch the ball. I run, pass through guys, and score a try and say, ‘Alright, I think this is my game.’”

He says the game isn’t popular in Israel, “but because of the Heat, the popularity will go up. The Heat is a professional club, which everyone wants to play for.”

Eli grew tired of Israeli rugby and hung up his boots. Upon becoming coach of the Israel national team in 2018, Musikanth motivated Eli to return to the sport.

“Please Misha, believe me, there’s a difference,” Musikanth told him at the time.

Looking back four years later, Eli says, “Wow, there is a difference.”

Musikanth says the Heat provides a unique sports opportunity for the development of rugby in Israel. “Our players are being exposed at the highest competitive level of rugby in one of the biggest cross-border club competitions in Europe [the European Super Cup]. Rugby Europe’s plan is for the competition to grow. It’s already televised and growing traction. For Israel to have a franchise in such a unique competition is amazing. We’re a foundation member of the tournament. That means we’re here to stay. I’m thrilled that our Israeli talented players are starting to respond with professional mindsets and the opportunity is there for them to see a pathway through rugby.”

Eli and Musikanth now look forward to Israel’s European Nations Cup encounter away to Slovenia on 2 April. They will then host Croatia before turning their attention to the Heat’s Europe Super Cup semi-final against Portuguese-side Lusitanos in Lisbon on 16 April.

Says Musikanth, “It’s imperative that the Jewish community around the world see the Tel Aviv Heat as our own sports team and get behind us as we endeavour to make positive changes in the region and over time, build up our playing and coaching resources to be able to perform and produce at the World Cup and the Olympic Games.”

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