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Israeli star sings praises of Roodepoort rugby and braaivleis

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Ori Abutbul is a rugby pioneer. The former Tel Aviv security guard and Israeli international is currently playing club rugby in Roodepoort on the West Rand after being persuaded to come to South Africa by Kevin Musikanth, the current Israeli national coach.
by LUKE ALFRED | Apr 11, 2019

Musikanth convinced Abutbul that a trip south was the smart way to grow his game, so the 24 year-old is experiencing the culture shock of hearing line-out calls in Afrikaans.

He’s also experiencing the joys of seeing pineapple on pizza, and finding out that we call a barbecue a braai here in South Africa. Then there’s the little matter of calling traffic lights robots.

Best of all, he’s rubbing shoulders with former Golden Lions centre “Stokkies” Hanekom and Roodepoort coach Alwyn Hollenbach, the ex-Cheetahs centre who was forced to retire due to the recurrence of a shoulder injury.

And he’s loving every minute of it.

Not that Abutbul’s arm needed a great deal of twisting. As a teenager, he encountered several South Africans coaching on kibbutzim in Israel, and it was there that he fell in love with rugby. He half-jokingly likes to call himself “Africa”, and given that he enjoys the game so much, he didn’t think too hard after Musikanth came up with the proposition.

“It’s so much fun,” says Abutbul, who is hoping to make his first XV Roodepoort debut this weekend. “This is pure rugby. This is hard-working men coming to play after work and enjoying themselves.”

Abutbul is an outside centre and place-kicker, one of the young players on whom Musikanth thinks that Israel’s 2023 World Cup dreams can be built. As a younger player, he played in several positions in the pack, ranging from loosehead to eighthman, but finally ended up as second centre.

Musikanth first saw him several years ago, scoring all of Israel’s points in a victory over Malta, and was impressed not only by Abutbul’s obvious ability, but his calmness. “I taught myself to kick out of a book,” he says, chuckling. “That and by going onto YouTube.”

“My favourite kickers are Hayden Parker of the Sunwolves and Demetri Catrakilis, the former Stormers flyhalf. Kevin used to coach Demetri at False Bay, and I met him a couple of months ago,” says Abutbul. “His approach to kicking is what I like. Everything is so cool. He’s confident and happy.”

The outside centre who played good basketball in Israel has taken a gamble in coming to Johannesburg. He’s left his girlfriend and his job as a security guard at Facebook in Tel Aviv behind until he returns at the end of the South African winter. He’s living a dream by being here, getting close to some of the temples of the international game, and learning a great deal just by being in the Roodepoort environment.

Musikanth, who engineered Abutbul’s move to Roodepoort, has done similar things for Israeli internationals like Jason Ferreira, who is currently playing at Pirates, and Jared Sichel, who was playing at Villagers. The dream for the ex-Ikeys coach, Musikanth, is that he can find a rugby-loving benefactor to turn the trickle of Israeli players here in South Africa into a stream, because it’s one of the obvious ways for the Israeli game to grow.

“You need to upskill Israeli rugby players,” says Musikanth, “and you also need to have a club rugby system to challenge them. We might be some way off perfecting that system, but the next best thing is to find a way to bridge the gap between club rugby there and the far-stronger club game here in South Africa.”

Ideally, Musikanth is hoping to bring between five and seven talented young Israeli players here on an annual basis for seven years. “That’s almost a year-and-a-half in terms of a World Cup planning cycle,” he says. “If we can get that right, we’d be well on the way to reaching our dream of qualifying for a World Cup.”

Musikanth has never been one to dampen his dreams. He remembers this time of year exactly five years ago, when UCT-Ikeys, the side he then coached, travelled to Potchefstroom to meet the more favoured Pukke in that year’s Varsity Cup final.

UCT had lost to Pukke in the competition’s round-robin phase, and Musikanth is far enough away from the experience to admit that they shouldn’t have been in with a shout. But magic was in the air because he and the UCT support staff had hired a professional magician a couple of days before the final, and it became a team mantra that magic was always possible.

“I was happy we were losing 33-31, I really was, because it was a respectable loss,” he says. “Then we charged down an attempted drop-kick when they should have kicked it out after the final whistle, and we scored the winning try.

“That’s magic in my book.”

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