Arrivals: Meet Israel’s new National 15s Rugby coach

Born in South Africa, Kevin Musikanth is the coach of Israel’s National 15s Rugby Team. “I made aliyah because I am a proud Jew,” he said.

By LISA SAMIN
March 14, 2019 20:36
4 minute read.
Arrivals: Meet Israel’s new National 15s Rugby coach

KEVIN MUSIKANTH, 41 FROM MUIZENBERG, SOUTH AFRICA, TO NETANYA, 2018. (photo credit: GRAHAM DELACY)

 
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Kevin Musikanth’s earliest memories are of watching rugby with his father. Growing up in the seaside town of Muizenberg in Cape Town, love for the sport has guided Musikanth throughout his colorful life as one of only a few Jewish rugby coaches in South Africa. 
 
Today, Musikanth is the coach of Israel’s National 15s Rugby Team, in which 15 players are on the field. Israel also has a 7s team with seven players and slightly different rules. He came to Israel with one goal. “I am completely and utterly driven to put Israel on the world rugby map. Just imagine Israel being at a World Cup,” he says. “It’s doable.”
 
This is a Herculean task, considering the nascent state of rugby in Israel. But Musikanth sees raw talent and determination, and is convinced he can turn his dream into a reality for Israel. And he has the track record to prove it. 
 
Musikanth’s father, a pharmacist, and his mother, an actress dedicated to amateur dramatics, encouraged their three boys to do well in school and sports, and to be involved in the Jewish community. “Although I went to a non-Jewish school and had non-Jewish friends, we were actively involved in the synagogue,” says Musikanth. “I grew up observant enough to keep my Jewish identity in a non-Jewish environment.”
 
Musikanth excelled at rugby, but ongoing injuries prevented his going further with the sport. Instead, he turned to coaching younger kids, which began when he was 17. He actually wanted to go to medical school, and although he got accepted, he could not afford it. He took a gap year and studied to be a fitness trainer. 
 
With his trademark determination and self-described competitiveness, Musikanth and a partner started a personal training gym, Body Excel. By the time he was 26, Body Excel had eight gyms and an academy to teach people to be personal trainers. With all this, Musikanth continued coaching rugby. 
 
In 2001, Musikanth was selected to play for the South African rugby team at the Maccabiah Games, the world’s largest Jewish sporting event. This was his first time in Israel and he had an amazing experience, especially given the team winning the gold medal. 
 
Musikanth continued to run his gyms and coach semi-professional men’s rugby, racking up a number of impressive wins. With the economic downturn in 2011, Musikanth took a giant risk and decided to try making a living as a rugby coach. “Rugby is an amazing game. It simply took over my life, but in a positive, not a toxic way,” says Musikanth. 
 
His famous South African moment happened while coaching the University of Cape Town Ikey Tigers in 2014. In what was touted in the media as, “quite simply the most amazing comeback of all time,” Musikanth head-coached his underdog team to win the Varsity Cup, the world’s most prestigious university rugby tournament. 
 
“We achieved the impossible,” says Musikanth. His team was trailing by what seemed like an insurmountable margin, 15-33, when in the last five minutes they miraculously turned the game around and won. “This was a story of possibility, team spirit, never giving up and believing in magic.” 
 
Musikanth, Prof. Tim Noakes and assistant coach Jonathan Kaplan wrote a book in seven weeks on how the team won its incredible victory. “We titled the book, Always Believe in Magic, because this is what we told the players,” says Musikanth. “We had to teach them to be winners, and to believe that anything was possible – that magic is all around us.”
 
Musikanth says rugby is a game of trust, and if the players trust their coach, you’re halfway there. “Being a coach is inclusive,” he continues. “My philosophy is that you coach the player, but there is a person behind the player that you need to get to know and to connect with.” 
 
In 2017, Musikanth was chosen to coach South Africa’s Maccabiah rugby team, and once again found himself in Israel, once again winning the gold, and a silver medal. His assistant coach was James Small, known for his outstanding performance on the rugby field when South Africa hosted and won the 1995 World Cup.
 
The Israel Rugby Association saw Musikanth and was intrigued by his talent – and by the fact that he was Jewish. They approached him and asked him to coach the national team. “In order for this to happen, everything needed to be aligned, and miraculously it was,” says Musikanth.
 
He was offered a position to be the director of rugby at King David Linksfield, a Jewish day school in Johannesburg, with the principal’s understanding that he would spend half his time in Israel and half in Johannesburg. This was possible because of the different playing seasons in each country, and because the Jewish community was behind him.
 
Musikanth says that he sees great potential among the Israeli rugby players, but that they are simply not aware of what they can achieve. “In order to put Israeli rugby on the map,” he says, “we must send the best Israeli players to South Africa to play at university and club level, and then return to Israel to help lead them to the World Cup and Olympics.”
 
Musikanth has helped three players get accepted to a university team in South Africa. He is now engaged in a huge undertaking to try raising the funds needed so they will be able to stay there, and for additional players to join them each year. 
 
“I made aliyah because I am a proud Jew,” says Musikanth candidly. “I feel blessed to coach the national team, and so fortunate that I can be both in Israel and South Africa, and that there are such incredible people on this journey with me.” 
 
KEVIN MUSIKANTH, 41
FROM MUIZENBERG, SOUTH AFRICA, 
TO NETANYA, 2018

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