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Israel

SA sportsmen turn up the Heat at European Super Cup

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Six South African sportsmen represented Israel as part of Tel Aviv Heat, the country’s first professional rugby team, in the European Super Cup, which concluded at the end of 2021.

This team, which launched only eight months ago, includes South Africans Jordan Chait, Thomas Berman, Kieron Houlsten, David Geffen, and Brent Kier. The team is also being coached by South African Kevin Musikanth.

Berman, Houlsten, Geffen, and Kier represented South Africa under coach Musikanth in either fifteens or sevens rugby at the Maccabi Games in 2017.

In spite of their different home countries, the team has developed a unique kindred spirit evident during the team’s three-month campaign in the Europe Super Cup.

The multinational team’s players sang songs on the team bus, in the change room, as well as before and after training sessions and matches. The team’s six Jewish South African players told the SA Jewish Report they had never previously played for a team that sang so much.

“In our team, the Fijians would sing their songs, the Israelis would sing [Hebrew] songs, and Africans would sing songs like Shosholoza,” says Sharks fly-half Chait, who had a short stint with the Heat. “So, we had an awesome vibe. Everyone felt like they could be themselves.

“We would sing regardless of whether we won or lost,” says flanker Berman, an alumnus of King Edward VII school in Johannesburg. “It was refreshing to have that sort of vibe and team culture. You could just enjoy every moment.”

Musikanth, who now juggles his role as coach of the Israel national team with coaching Heat, approached them to join the Tel Aviv-based team.

Soon, they all found themselves competing in the Super Cup against top clubs from Russia and Georgia. Launched in 2021, the Super Cup is the first ever club competition for the emerging rugby unions in Europe.

Israel didn’t make the initial cut for the tournament. When one of the teams dropped out, the likes of Musikanth and South African-born businessmen Barry Seidel and Mike Aron got together to build a team from the ground up.

Their proposal was accepted by Rugby Europe, and Heat became a founding member of the Super Cup. “That means we’re there to stay,” says Musikanth “By the time 2025 rolls around, it will be a competition with 16 teams, so almost all year-round.”

In the build-up to the tournament last year, Musikanth’s side only had a few weeks together. When the tournament started, COVID-19 disrupted their schedules. They had to play three games in nine days. “Playing in the Super Cup was tough,” says Geffen (no relation to Okey Geffen). “The teams we played against had been playing rugby full-time and had been together for a longer time.”

Yet, Heat managed to win three of its six matches, the last of which being the first professional rugby game in Israel.

“While we probably did three times as well as anybody expected, we did three times as badly as we expected because we wanted to make the semi-finals,” says Musikanth.

However, Heat missed out on the semis only courtesy of bonus points, so Musikanth believes his team can be proud of themselves.

“In every single one of our games, we came from behind on the scoreboard, even if we didn’t end up winning,” he says. “But the magic exists off the field. One of our key signings was Demetri Catrakilis, who I coached when he was 19. He’s the attack and kicking coach.”

Using their respective networks, they started recruiting players who could bolster the team’s Israeli players.

South Africans such as former scrumhalf Nic Groom arrived alongside players from Fiji, Samoa, Namibia, Ireland, England, Scotland, Canada, Ukraine, and Georgia.

They were divided up into three groups. “We had emerging young players from around the world, we had marquee key players like Groom and Josh Strauss, and Israeli guys, some of whom potentially were up for it and some of whom needed to develop,” says Musikanth.

Musikanth’s technical team also includes an assistant coach, physical therapist, and team manager.

Heat has a culture that puts people first, says Musikanth “We believe that you coach the player but you need to acknowledge that there’s a person behind the player.”

The club has a proper professional setup, says Brent Kier, a King David Linksfield alumnus who played for the Lions Sevens team in 2009.

Kier trained with Heat at every practice, but never made Musikanth’s matchday squad, so he played for an amateur club to stay match fit. He says interest in rugby is growing in Israel. “Over the past four years, the growth has been unreal. New clubs are popping up all over, and the league in Israel is more competitive each year.”

According to Seidel, who has loved sport from a young age and has used its analogies to motivate his staff in business, “Heat’s vision is to make Israel a rugby nation. The long-term view is to be in a position to qualify Israel for the World Cup.”

The team’s mission is to use “start-up-nation” innovation to build a world-class rugby team. “We hope to use technology,” says Seidel. “For, example, we are speaking to a company that has technology to measure the forcefulness of a kick in karate and judo. What we are looking to do is to track the data of, for example, the force of a tackle of a rugby player.”

Heat’s backline player, Houlston, who wore a cap signed by his role-model, Catrakilis, to many of his rugby practices at St John’s College in Johannesburg, says, “You play for teams that have been around for years. But we can say we were the first group of boys to play for the Heat.”

Versatile prop Jared Sichel is a national team player for Israel. This alumnus of the Durban-based Glenwood High School got Israeli citizenship because his grandmother was born in Israel. He says, “The longer-term goal is to win the Super Cup, grow the sport of rugby in Israel, and ensure that there’s a long standing professional Israeli outfit in other competitions.”

Players of all colours and religions are travelling to Israel to play for Heat. “A player of colour wasn’t able to be contracted by the Blue Bulls,” mentions Seidel. “He’s going to come play rugby for us and live on a kibbutz.”

Israelis, meanwhile, now have a chance to shine for a professional rugby team in their own country. “You need to stage to sign,” says Musikanth, whose original family name was “Muzikant”, which means “musician” in Russian. “You can be the best singer in the world, but if you don’t have a stage to sing from, the world won’t hear you.”

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