SA gives Israeli rugby team a warm welcome
Tel Aviv Heat director of rugby and head coach Kevin Musikanth says he and his 38-man squad have had a great reception since arriving in South Africa earlier this month for their four-match tour against three Blue Bulls Rugby Union clubs.
Having been invited by the Pretoria-based union, the Heat lost 40-17 and 17-15 in its two matches against Northam Rhinos at Northam Rhino’s Rugby Club stadium in Limpopo on Saturday, 19 March.
In Pretoria, The Heat will also play two games against ABE Midas Naka Bulle on 23 March, and one game against Loftus on 26 March.
“The Bulls have been fantastic and looked after us,” Musikanth told the SA Jewish Report on Human Rights Day. “The Rhinos were great.”
The Heat’s versatile prop, Jared Sichel, says, “The reception we have received since being in South Africa has been nothing short of amazing. The hospitality of the various rugby clubs, specifically the Rhinos, has been great. It’s obviously nice to have some really good training facilities available to us, as well as our Super Cup physio, who is based in Johannesburg. In terms of the playing level against the Rhinos, it was probably what we expected.”
The Rhinos, the 2021 Carlton Cup runners-up, have “a really strong setup”, says Musikanth. “We split our group into two – the Reds and the Blues – as many players are new to the squad.”
The Blues were stronger than the Reds, and played in the second match. Captained by Renaldo Bothma, a former Sharks and Blue Bulls Super Rugby forward, the Blues dominated most of the game and led 12-5 at half-time.
In the last minute, the Rhinos’ replacement hooker, Khwezi Mfaku, collected the ball at the back of a rolling maul and scored a try, which his side converted to secure a 17-15 win.
Some of the Heat’s players who played on Saturday were, Musikanth says, “our exciting new half-backs Marc Morrison and Bradley Thain, both junior Lions players. We have some solid Namibian internationals here.”
The South African Jewish players who got on to the field against the Rhinos were Thomas Berman of the Wits Varsity Cup team and Israel national team players Dan Stein and Sichel.
“I wouldn’t say that the match against the Rhinos was tougher than the Super Cup in Europe and some of the Russian and Georgian teams. Definitely not as tough as that level. But I think it was something that we perhaps could have been a bit more prepared for,” says Sichel, who plays for Hamiltons Rugby Club in Cape Town when not playing for the Heat. “We had only two days together before that first Rhinos game. There’s an extended squad playing. It’s not the final Heat team that’s involved because they’re trialling a couple of guys.”
The Heat’s touring squad doesn’t include many of its contracted Major League Rugby, Currie Cup, and Varsity Cup players. Its Fijian players are also not in South Africa.
“As much as we wanted to win and played to win against the Rhinos, for the coaching staff, it was an opportunity for us to see new players and potential new squad members for the Heat going forward,” says Musikanth. “We also have most of the Israeli international players on the trip, so we are trying to develop the younger guys and give them a taste of high levels of rugby that they aren’t used to.”
Asked how the Heat will prepare for the matches against Naka Bulle and Loftus 200, Musikanth says, “We have a very heavy schedule with lots to get through. The guys had their first training session only on Thursday last week. It has been nonstop since then.”
Consequently, not much time has been available for the Heat’s South African players to show their teammates the country. “We went to a Varsity Cup game yesterday [on Human Rights Day], but I don’t know if that counts,” says Berman.
For the game against Naka Bulle, Berman and Sichel will be on the bench for the Blues, while Stein will start the match as the fly-half for the Reds.
Berman told the SA Jewish Report recently, “The Heat is a very player-driven team. It has one of the best team cultures I’ve ever played for in terms of the vibe, everyone getting along, and enjoying each other.”
Next on the team’s schedule is a tour to Portugal for their Europe Super Cup semifinal against Lusitanos in Lisbon on 16 April.
“What’s great about rugby is travelling the world, meeting new people, and playing with the Heat’s players who have played at a seriously high level,” Sichel said recently. “They’re all fantastic guys. They’re also human. As a player, I’ve definitely improved by playing alongside those types of guys. Also, just getting to know them as mates was great.”