It has been known for quite a while that the inception of this franchise has heralded a new dawn for Israeli rugby. Conceived and billed as a startup rugby team for the Startup Nation, the new season commenced with the same management and coaching staff that launched the initiative last year.
Changes to the team since last season
The bulk of last season’s squad signed up again, a testament to excellent player/coach/management relationships, especially in the fickle world of professional sport, where player retention and satisfaction are not easily achieved. The squad was strengthened with new recruits in key areas (especially in the scrum among the front-row forwards), and with some exciting and pacey outside backs, who bolstered the attack options in the backline.
Just as last year, the Heat played in the Eastern Conference alongside the inaugural winners, Black Lion from Georgia. The two Russian teams that played in 2021 were disqualified and replaced by the Romanian Wolves and RC Batumi (also from Georgia), an outcome to the invasion of Ukraine. This did not serve to weaken the conference, as Romania has an established presence at World Cup Rugby competition level, and Georgia is an upcoming force in Europe, pushing for inclusion in the premier Six Nations Championship, and with a strong domestic league aiding player development.
The first round of games were all away fixtures. The Wolves were tamed in the opener in Bucharest, with a hard-fought 25-20 victory for the Heat. This was followed up by a ‘’winning draw’’ 25-25 against Black Lion in Kutaisi. Although a draw was a fair reflection of the game, with both sides scoring three tries a piece, the Heat pushed a penalty kick wide of the posts in the final minute, which prevented a second win on the road.
We’re proud of our players! Tel Aviv Heat captain Prince Gaoseb has been named Vice Captain of Namibia for Saturday’s match vs Spain!https://t.co/ooFGQNiJIB#sports #TLV #Israel pic.twitter.com/JNysc1uVxT— Tel Aviv Heat (@TelAvivHeat) November 13, 2022
The final away game in Batumi was played in atrocious weather conditions, in torrential rain and on a poorly drained field that resembled a mud bath. Rugby has always been a game that is played in the elements, whatever they may be, and a muddy field is always an equalizer, nullifying an expansive running game. RC Batumi played the conditions smartly, especially in the second half, working the scrum to milk penalties and coming away with 19-11 victory.
The second round of home fixtures all took place at Shlomo Bituach Stadium in Petah Tikvah, an excellent venue, and easily accessible to the rugby public.
Contrary to last year, where COVID-19 restrictions compelled the Heat to play two of their three ‘’home’’ pool games away in Rustavi and Tbilisi, all the home games were actually on Israeli soil.
The Black Lion were up first. For most fans, it was the defining game of the season so far, with an emphatic 24-18 Heat triumph. It was also a clear measure of progress against the defending champions, and against a team stacked with Georgian Internationals. Their attack, game management, and then defense in the closing stages typified a team with character and trophy-winning aspirations.
The Heat followed it up with a sweet revenge win over RC Batumi, 25-8, this time in dry weather. And it completed the three-home game series with a third victory, hitting their straps and putting fifty passed a young Romanian Wolves side, 55-5.
At the end of the group stage, and despite its good showing head-to-head, the Black Lion finished in pole position on the log, mostly thanks to the bonus points obtained (four offensive and one defensive bonus point). Tel Aviv Heat finished second and has now earned the right to play the Western Conference table-topping Lusitanos from Portugal in the semis. It is a repeat of the semifinal from last year in Lisbon.
While the raison d’etre for establishing Tel Aviv Heat was participation in Rugby Europe’s Super Cup, the positive externalities from creating such a franchise serve to develop the quality of the players in the Israel National Team.
Five home-grown players played in the final pool game against the Wolves. Alongside the players from South Africa, Namibia, Fiji (and one lucky Irishman), this illustrates the long-term potential for the Israeli National side, leveraging the level of competition exposed to the Tel Aviv Heat in the Super Cup, and challenging for higher honors, like participating in the Rugby World Cup.
Rugby is also a global game, albeit with a niche following locally. The Tel Aviv Heat has the potential to attain exposure from a global audience, build on the successes in RESC, and build a sustainable world-class rugby club on and off the pitch that elevates and links Israel rugby to a worldwide community of sports professionals and fans, promoting respect and inclusion.
This vision is taking shape.
Earlier in the year, the Heat toured South Africa and enjoyed three games against top club sides linked to the Blue Bulls, one of the powerhouses of South African rugby. Over the summer, it played in the RugbyTown Sevens, a premier 7s tournament in the US market. And as a warm-up for the Lusitanos, it will travel to London a week before to play Saracens on Sunday, November 27. There are not too many clubs as prestigious as Sarries, multiple winners of the Premiership Rugby in England and European Rugby Champions Cup.
All the best to Coach Kevin Musikanth and his charges, as they keep Israel’s first professional rugby flag flying at home, and away at stadiums around the world.
For more information on the Tel Aviv Heat, please visit www.telavivheat.com