Fifteen sweaty bodies are running against each other to get control of the ball. One of the small athletes wins the ball, running faster to try to score.
Suddenly, a bigger athlete pins him down and the ball is free again. Game on.
In what could only be described as an intense and very physical sport, rugby union is slowly becoming more and more popular in Israel.
And the game is not just played for leisure.
For more than 35 years, the men’s national team has been representing the country. In recent decades, a youth and women’s team have been added as well.
In November, the men’s 15-a-side team hosted Croatia and traveled to Cyprus, opening their third-tier Rugby Europe Championships Conference 1 South campaign with two convincing victories.
Raanan Penn, the men’s national team head coach for both the 15-a-side and 7-a-side teams, is seeing a change in the development of the sport in the country.
And with the addition of rugby 7s to the Summer Olympics, there is hope that the sport will gain more exposure, that it will receive more government subsidies for development programs and that its popularity will surge among the country’s youth.
“First and foremost, we are improving, slowly but surely. We have reached more exposure among women and children,” he says. “We are getting better in our level of play, both [in the] club and national levels.”
There are about 1,000 players playing regularly in the country, and around 150 of them are women. One of the leading women on the national team is Hagit Salomon. She began playing in Jerusalem, and in 2015 she created the Rehovot Owls, giving the city both a men’s and women’s team. “I used to participate in track and field competitions for 10 years.
In the last four years I have been a member of the national team.”
Salomon says that because there aren’t as many women playing the game, they play rugby 7s. “It’s smaller teams because it is harder to recruit and keep players to play rugby. In addition, the physical preparation for a rugby scrum in 15s is more difficult than one seen in the style of rugby 7s.”
Salomon says there are many reasons for this. “The reputation of the game, the lack of public awareness of rugby, and mostly the fact that there are no teams for girls, so females are usually exposed to rugby in a late stage of life, after IDF service or during university.”
Today, the women’s league is made up of five clubs. The national team includes 12 players who go to the different European tournaments and there is an extended squad made up of 16 players. “It makes it very hard to even hold a regular 7-on-7 practice match.”
Salomon says the national team hasn’t reached its potential, and that if girls learn how to play the game from a young age it will make a huge difference.
“I really think that if we can change the picture and have a basic rugby infrastructure with under-18 youth women clubs, it will be a game changer. My aspiration, especially because I am a female rugby player and one who believes in our future generation, is to develop rugby infrastructures across Israel.”
Salomon is also an ambassador on behalf of Athena, a national project advancing women’s sports. “I feel like rugby is family. I know everything is up to me, and in rugby I truly have found a second family. Because it is such a demanding sport, there is no such thing that you are not going to get physically hurt in a game. One of my coaches said that getting hurt is inevitable, but pain is a choice. It’s the physical sacrifice during a game which makes the bonding in rugby so strong.”
Family is what brought Mauricio Bialecamie, originally from Argentina, to join the university sport club ASA Tel Aviv, one of the eight teams in this season’s men’s rugby 7s league.
“After my army service, I moved to Tel Aviv and, randomly, I met someone who is also Argentinean playing for ASA, and it turned out friends of his family are relatives of my family. He told me about the Tel Aviv rugby club and then I decided to try it out and join.”
Bialecamie was no stranger to the game, however. “I was introduced to rugby through my dad. He played rugby most of his life and ever since I can remember myself I was always surrounded by a rugby pitch.”
Bialecamie says the values of rugby are what make the game so unique. “I like the teamwork for each game where you rough it out for 80 minutes [in a rugby 15s match] and at the end of the game you drink beer together. There is respect for the referees, your teammates and there is commitment to the game.”
He also added that there is a tendency to think that rugby exposure for young children is wrong because it is very violent.
“I think the opposite true. It improves a child’s behavior and teaches them how to respect one another.”
ASA Tel Aviv roster’s is one of the biggest in the league. The club and Kibbutz Yizre’el’s squad are the more prominent teams in the league. When the first clubs were formed, they were made up mostly of English-speaking members who made aliya in the ’70s.
Elisha Rubin, ASA Tel Aviv’s chairman and former Israeli Rugby Union president, says immigrants were a boon to the sport. “In 1973, there was a massive aliya of South Africans. During the same time, there were four Israeli rugby clubs that were just created – at Tel Aviv University, Hebrew University, Haifa University and one club in Kibbutz Yizre’el. The kibbutz was formed by mostly South African immigrants.”
Aliya is still a main factor in the Tel Aviv club but Israeli-born players do make up a significant percentage of the team, such as Omri Lotan. He and his wife, Maya, were also members of the national teams.
Lotan started out at Tel Aviv’s youth club. “I was a bit of a chubby kid growing up and looking for a sport I could take part in. A friend of the family said they were opening a youth rugby team in Tel Aviv.” And he has been involved with the sport ever since.
The Lotans have two children. Asking if they see a future for them in rugby, Omri smiles and nods. “Of course I do.
Every time I see a sport game with grass, even if it’s a football match, they say ‘Dad is watching a rugby game.’” Another proud rugby father is Arik Gail, head of the excellence program, which aims to develop 17- and 18-yearolds to play in Europe in the “Year of Rugby Abroad” program, which began three years ago.
“The goal of the project is to improve the level of rugby in Israel,” he says. “We are not just waiting for international players and coaches to come here but we also want to send our leading youth players and place them with teams and facilities that are more standardized abroad. They will improve [their] skills in the year they are there and when they return to Israel they become a catalyst that pushes the entire rugby union program forward.”
Arik’s son, Uri, exhibited enough skill to earn a spot on France’s AS Macon’s first team, receiving “outstanding sportsman” status allowing him to postpone his army service. Today, Uri plays for SC Frankfurt 1880 and has become the first player born in Israel to have earned a guaranteed contract with a rugby team abroad.
“[He] is sort of a pioneer for us,” says his father. ”In many ways, he’s opening the door for others. When he completed his second year at Macon, we [the family] started working with an agent who represents players all across the world playing in the different global leagues.”
The excellence program is just one of many on the agenda the Israeli Rugby Union has. President Menachem Ben-Menachem, who has recently been reelected for a third term, says the IRU is looking for new and innovative ways to make the sport more accessible to anyone interested in taking part. “My agenda is a vision where every child in Israel will know rugby exists in the country somewhere near him, and he or she has the option to play the game.”
With rugby 7s becoming a full Olympic sport this year, the current goal is to make to the 2024 Olympics.
“We have to make the games and tournaments more professional and less social. It begins with our national team and should go through to the club level. In addition, we have a strong base within the IRU developing the children and women’s [participation] as well. We have started a coaching seminar where we want to grow the pool of coaches we can offer the different clubs.”
Ben-Menachem sums up his plans for the future as a path where the first stones have already been laid. “It’s a nonstop building process, in which we create a dream to interest children and have a substantial platform to offer the way for achievements.”
The rules of rugby union
Rugby union has two variations – 7s and 15s, where there are either seven or 15 players on a team.
According to the game’s oral tradition, rugby was first seen around 1823.
It began at a soccer match in Rugby, England, when William Webb Ellis took the ball in his hands and started running with it.
The playing field, referred to as a pitch, is larger than an American football field. The two goal posts in rugby are not as high as in American football.
While both sports use an oval-shaped ball, it is important for the rugby ball to be impervious to water and mud because the game is played outdoors.
The game has four ways a player can score:
1. Try: The most points to gain from a score is to attempt a try. This means touching the ball down in the opponent’s in-goal area or on their goal line. In addition, this gives that team the right to attempt a conversion kick.
2. Conversion kick: A conversion kick is taken from a spot in line where the ball was originally grounded, so scoring a try as close to the posts is ideal.
3. Penalty kick: Penalties for different fouls can be used to take a kick at goal.
4. Dropped goal: A dropped goal happens when the player drops the ball on the ground and then kicks it. A rugby game has two 40-minute halves. If the game is tied after regular time, knockout stages of rugby games feature two 10-minute halves with a five-minute break between each of them.