An Australian Friends of Israel Rugby chapter was launched at an event in September at Easts Rugby Club in Sydney, where a bold yet achievable dream was shared – of Israel qualifying for the 2031 Rugby World Cup in the USA, and the rugby 7s competition at the 2032 Olympic Games in Brisbane.
More than 150 Jewish rugby fans attended the event, emceed by Sydneysider and Israeli rugby stalwart Geoff Levy, and featuring special guest visitor Kevin Musikanth.
He is the head coach of Israel’s national men’s rugby team, and also of Israel’s first professional rugby franchise – the Tel Aviv Heat – which was established in early 2021, but is already making a big mark in the European SuperCup.
Musikanth revealed that Rugby Israel is on a mission to build an elite player pathway system, establish a rugby academy in Israel, grow the game through school and club-based programs to inspire the next generation, and increase revenue for the sport through boosting Tel Aviv Heat membership numbers – in both Israel and the Jewish Diaspora – in order to achieve its lofty goals.
The two-time Varsity Cup winning coach – who made Aliyah from South Africa in 2018 – said, “We’ll need the support of the diaspora rugby communities – including here in Australia – and the best way to do that, and be a part of this dream, is to become a member of the Tel Aviv Heat”.
“It’s a big dream, but I’m confident that if we can achieve these steps, that we will get there, because our national squad will be good enough.
“This is the first of hopefully many visits I have to Jewish rugby fans in Australia, and around the diaspora, to let people know that you now have, with the Tel Aviv Heat, a team to follow in the European SuperCup, that is diverse and has players from all over the world that are all putting their bodies on the line for us, and share our dream.”
HOW THE HEAT WAS BORN
When a German franchise pulled out of the European SuperCup before the 2021-22 season, Musikanth convinced Rugby Israel’s board to apply to replace them, and their proposal was successful, mainly because Musikanth, with the assistance of South African Demeteri Catrakilis – a recently retired former Harlequins fly-half – was able to quickly recruit top quality players from Fiji, South Africa, Namibia, and Europe, and add in a handful of Israel’s very best players too.
Remarkably, the Heat made the semi-finals in their debut European SuperCup season, and then made the 2022-23 season final by toppling Portuguese club Lusitanos, before falling to Georgian club Black Lion.
“The first player that we signed for the Tel Aviv Heat was Jasa Veremalua, a Fijian Olympic gold medallist who was playing club rugby in America,” Musikanth recalled.
“I was a bit nervous when contacting him, because I thought why would he want to play rugby in Israel?
“But he just said that doing so would be as important to him as playing for Fiji – and then he brought along his buddy Semi Kunatani – a fellow rugby 7s Olympic gold medallist!”
“We then signed Namibia’s vice captain Prince Gaoseb to complete our back row, and South African Sebastiaan Job, who was basically our best player in the tournament, and now plays for us as well as Kibbutz Yizreel, where he now lives, and even goes by the name Yosef now, in Israel anyway!”
With such a multi-cultural and multi-faith Heat squad, Musikanth said he makes it a priority that whatever club or country a player comes from, “they’re coming into an environment where they are brothers, because that’s how our team works – so if we’ve got a Fijian player, we get to know the whole village he is from.”
Another highlight last year for the Heat was winning a friendly fixture 29-26 against one of England’s top clubs, Saracens, in front of a big crowd in London in November, albeit Saracens were missing some of their Test squad members.
A lowlight though, was when the South African Rugby Union (SARU) – no doubt under pressure from the BDS movement against Israel – disinvited the Heat from competing as one of four international-based clubs in the 2023 Mzansi Challenge, just a month before it started in March.
When announcing the Heat’s cancellation from that tournament, SARU claimed its decision was based on security reasons.
ISRAELI TALENT GIVEN OPPORTUNITY TO SHINE
Musikanth said there are currently up to five Israeli players in the Tel Aviv Heat’s rugby XV squad, and four of the Heat’s rugby 7s squad of 11 that made the quarter-finals of this year’s RugbyTown tournament in Colorado, were Israeli natives.
In the latter tournament, the squad’s captain for the first time was an Israeli player, Omer Levinson.
“To make it in the Heat squad, it means these Israeli players are playing at a very high level, and are getting the opportunity to play against, and alongside, professional rugby players,” Musikanth said.
“In our first SuperCup season, most of them were on the bench, but in our second season, some made the starting side.
“And they can bring that experience when they play Test match rugby for Israel.”
Israel has a small but growing domestic rugby competition, its national men’s team is currently ranked 62nd out of 109 nations, they won the 2022-23 Rugby Europe South Conference 1, and will host Malta in their next match on October 28.
In rugby 7s, Israel’s national team came 10th in this year’s Rugby Europe Trophy Series.
STRATEGIES FOR FUTURE SUCCESS
Musikanth said he identified very early on that growing the game at the grassroots level in Israel required that it be introduced into the school system.
“I’m proud to say that there are 40 schools in Israel now playing rugby, based on the rugby curriculum I wrote.”
Other key pillars of Rugby Israel’s strategy to work towards qualifying for the World Cup and the Olympics within a decade include establishing a high performance rugby academy, hosting an international club rugby tournament, forming partnerships between the Heat and leading rugby clubs around the world, and forming direct pathways for elite international rugby players, predominantly via the Heat, to become eligible to play for Israel’s national team, in 7s and XV rugby.
ELIGIBILITY TO PLAY FOR ISRAEL
To be eligible to play for Israel’s national men’s, women’s, and junior teams, players – if not Israeli natives – must either have a Jewish parent or grandparent, or alternatively, must reside in Israel for a minimum of five consecutive years.
In 2023, six contracted non-Israeli Tel Aviv Heat players – some Jewish and some not – are staying on post-season to live in Israel, play for domestic clubs, and help coach Israeli youth development squads.
Israel Rugby hopes that by providing more incentives and opportunities for them, they will decide to stay on, and then become eligible to play for Israel by 2027.
One of those is Jewish player Thomas Berman, 24, who made Aliyah after representing South Africa in rugby at the 2022 Maccabiah Games.
“About 50 per cent of the Tel Aviv Heat team is Jewish, but [as they are from the diaspora] and do not have an Israeli parent or grandparent, they are not yet eligible to play for our country.
“If we can keep those players together in Israel for five years, and others, then you have a team that can qualify for a world cup or Olympics.”
Another recruitment avenue Rugby Israel is channelling is calling for expressions of interest from Australians who play U17s up to senior club rugby, who have at least one Israeli-born parent or grandparent.
A SHOW OF SUPPORT THROUGH HEAT MEMBERSHIP
Geoff Levy, whose son moved to Israel 2010 and played rugby for Israel’s national team for several years, thanked Musikanth, and fellow guest speaker Rod Kafer – a former Wallabies player – for their time at the Australian
Friends of Israel Rugby launch, and the audience for showing support for Rugby Israel through their attendance.
He said the most effective way to keep supporting Rugby Israel is to become a paid member of the Tel Aviv Heat.
To find out more, visit telavivheat.com/bridgesthroughrugby, or follow the Tel Aviv Heat on social media.
For any queries, or expressions of interest from potential players, email email@example.com