Israel rugby is "breaking through"
By Chris Thau
In a country where miracles are not that infrequent, Israel’s recent European Nations Cup campaign – which peaked last Saturday with an emphatic 46-3 win over an ambitious, yet limited Denmark – could only be described as a minor miracle.
It was the fourth win in as many Division 2B matches this season and keeps the Israelis, unbeaten since May 2011, firmly on the RWC 2015 qualifying track as they await, on 18 May, the winner of the Europe Round 1 play-off between Slovenia and Luxembourg.
Israel Rugby Union President Menachem Ben Menachem, though, is adamant this run is not a miracle, simply the reward for all the work they have put in to develop the national team.
Ben Menachem, who played flanker for Israel in the early 1990s, believes the input of the new coach – and former captain – Raanan Penn is a key ingredient of the Israeli success of the last four years, a period that has seen them rocket more than 30 places in the IRB World Rankings to a current high of 50th.
New lease of life
“There is no miracle really,” insisted Ben Menachem. “This is the progress of a talented side with an experienced pack of forwards and some gifted fleet-footed youngsters.
“Penn’s input was huge but he benefited from a change in attitude of the players. They are all amateurs, but they train like professionals. Since the game became an Olympic sport we benefit from the support of the Israeli Olympic Committee which makes a big difference.”
Backs coach Jeremy Schauder, a former international player and referee, believes it is the abbreviated version of the Game that has played a significant role in the development of Israel’s youngsters.
“The advent of Sevens has done a great deal to help the comprehension and the skill levels of the young players. Four or five years ago, we used to win matches, but we did not score many tries. Now we score tries and the more we score the more they enjoy it.
“The entry of Sevens in the Olympics has given the Game a new lease of life.”
The success of the national team and another ENC title has helped raise the profile of the sport in Israel, but Ben Menachem knows there is still plenty more hard work to be done to ensure the future is as bright.
“Until this season our main thrust was to make the Israeli public aware of our existence under the logo ‘Israel has got rugby, you know!’,” added Ben Menachem. “Now that we are on the map, we have changed the tune – the new catchphrase is ‘Israel rugby is breaking through’.
“Then it was thanks to success during 2008-2009 that we started our climb in the IRB rankings. Success breeds success and the higher we went the harder the boys prepared.
“We have a lot of hard work to put in, because we need to increase the playing numbers, to identify the next generation of talent, as these players are reaching the end of their careers.”
Denmark were the latest to arrive at the Wingate Sports Centre in Netanya hoping to turn the tables on the Israelis, who had beaten them 15-0 last season. Buoyed by their recent 30-0 win over Serbia, Denmark’s determination and enthusiasm served them well during the opening quarter when, although deprived of any decent ball, they battled bravely to contain the Israeli onslaught.
It was the Israeli front five of Nathan Amos, Oren Alt, Matan Brosh, Oren Broadhurst and captain Yonatan Kaplan who did most of the damage, ably supported by a marauding back row of Julian Mafi, Guy Matisis and Michael Eli. To add to the Danish woes the Israeli lineout, accurately served by hooker Alt – at 42 probably the oldest international player still active – worked a treat, with the 6ft 6in Kaplan, the third member of his family to captain Israel, simply outstanding.
In an attempt to stem the tide, the visitors gave away a string of penalties, which the Israelis tried to run, but a combination of factors, from haste to sloppy passing, as well as resolute Danish tackling prevented them from crossing the try-line. With the Danes defending as if their lives depended on it, the sensible decision of Kaplan to ask centre Vitalii Pryimak to take a kick at goal in the 14th minute, rather than run it again, proved to be a turning point. The Israeli settled and eventually started to make inroads into the Danish defence.
After some five minutes as the dominance of the Israeli scrummage grew, the hands got slicker and the ball moved faster. The inevitable happened, as the right wing Jonathan Radashkovich appeared on a loop on the left to gallop over for the first try. Not to be denied the Danes bounced back attacking with the ball in hand, but found themselves squeezed back into their own 22 by the more assertive Israeli pack.
Though two more tries rewarded the Israeli enterprise in the first half – the last one just before half-time by electric scrum half Eitan Humphreys, whose playing career started at London Welsh.
However, it was the fourth Israeli touchdown by Radashkovich that ended Danish hopes of a second-half revival. It was Israel all the way from then on, though the gallant Danes kept trying to run the ball from deep, regularly halted by the well-organised Israeli defence.