Keeping the ball ‘in touch’: South Africa’s contribution to Israeli rugby

Whoever would have thought that Israeli rugby would make it to the 3rd round of the World Rugby Cup.

Israel seven-a-side captain, Nimrod Kaplan (center), and some of the ‘mud pack.’ (photo credit: PR)
Israel seven-a-side captain, Nimrod Kaplan (center), and some of the ‘mud pack.’
(photo credit: PR)
Israeli rugby has come a long way since former Natal player Leo Camron, volunteered in 1948 to fight in Israeli’s War of Independence. Making aliya in 1951 and serving in the sports department in the IDF, he organized Israel’s first rugby match – between a group of South Africans and a team of IDF Parachutists. What’s most remembered about that match was less about the result (18- 6 to the South Africans) but the rugby ball – a shoe wrapped in a towel! While the sport dipped into decline during the 1960s, the early 1970s saw a revival with an upsurge of aliyah from rugby-playing countries. In the “front pack” of this welcomed renaissance were the South Africans. Rugby clubs opened – the first by a group of South African students at Tel Aviv University and then followed by Kibbutz Yizre’el, whose name would emerge synonymous with rugby in Israel.
The sport took hold and in 1972, a National League was formed including teams from Hebrew University, Kibbutzim Tzora and Nachshon, Haifa Technion and Ramat Gan.
The Israel Rugby Football Union was officially formed with former Johannesburger Max Miodownik as the first president. He was later succeeded by Jack Rabin with Camron serving as coach and referee.
Effie Been, a former Transvaal player, arrived to bolster the team. The Wingate Institute in Netanya, which South Africans philanthropically supported in its development, served as the home ground.
In 1972, Israel hosted its first touring side – the Cyprus Lions formed by British Army troops, which Israel won 14-12.
Captain Barry Judelman and Vice-Captain Dudi Silbowitz were both former South Africans. In 1973 the Yom Kippur War broke out and the legendary Silbowitz was killed in action with a fellow South African, Neil Fried, in a tank near the Suez Canal.
It should be noted that Silbowitz, who had been a brilliant student and outstanding sportsman while at SA CS and UCT, turned down a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford University so that he could join his group from Habonim South Africa in Israel.
The following season, Israel hosted a goodwill tour of Northern Transvaal, who had won the Curry Cup.
Although Israel lost by a margin of 70 points “there were six Springboks in their team,” explains ex-South African, Charles Abelsohn, a retired lawyer for El Al who graduated in law from Stellenbosch University and who organized and refereed the memorable match.”
Played at Ramat Gan, it proved a watershed event which helped towards popularizing rugby in Israel.
“The Israeli side tackled and played exceptionally well,” said Abelsohn.
“Milton Kaplan – who would dominate the sport as his two sons later would – played lock. They surprised everybody. The Israeli captain, Scot Wilson, a former Scottish international scored the only try for Israel.”
It was literally a “trying” experience for Abelsohn.
“The Northern Transvaalers almost beat me up under the posts. They said Wilson used his hands in the scrum to get the ball to make the try,” he said.
Abelsohn stood his ground. “I threatened them with a penalty kick for arguing with the referee without going through their captain.”
“Is that a rule that holds today?” the writers inquired. “I don’t know. It was my rule on the day. It’s not written in the book; it’s one of those unwritten laws.”
While the Blue Bulls won that day, the true winner in the long run was Israeli rugby, which came of age and paved the way of what was to follow.
The season concluded on a high note, with a seven-a-side memorial tournament in memory of Dudi Silbowitz, which since then, has become an annual event.
Teddy Edelstein succeeded Jack Rabin as president in 1978 and later Cyril Morris of Ra’anana also known as “The Father of Israeli Rugby” took over the reins.
In the 1978-79 season, Israel hosted touring teams from Pretoria and Cape Town University, Australian Maccabi, an Argentine team and the Cyprus Lions, under the management of Jewish Springbok Cecil Moss.
Israel’s first international match was in Switzerland in 1981 and ended with a draw 9- 9. Milton Kaplan, originally from the Orange Free State captained the team, which also included Gary Myers, an oleh (immigrant) from Zimbabwe. A year later, Gary was killed in the Lebanon War. An annual memorial game too has been held in his memory.
The game was given a further shot in the arm when it was included in the Maccabiah Games. The popularity of the game increased, Alan Polatinsky was appointed the national coach, working a great deal among juniors and within a year he initiated a Junior League.
In the 1986-87 season, a team which included several South Africans toured France at the invitation of the French Rugby Union. Although it did not win any games, the players won the hearts of their hosts and were hailed as great ambassadors by town mayors and Jewish communities.
In 1988, Israel was granted Associate Membership by the International Rugby Football Board, recognition which brought with it eligibility to compete in the preliminary round in the World Cup. Israel was now on the international rugby map.
Selwyn Hare was appointed captain of the national team which performed well in the Maccabiah Games.
One of the highlights of Israel Rugby was in the qualifying matches in 1995 for the World Cup where Israel thrashed Hungary 67 - 8 in the preliminary round, before being knocked out in the group stage.
The camaraderie that existed between the players and strong support from the fans from all over the country increased rugby’s popularity.
Enter the Kaplan Brothers
There can’t be too many Israeli families that have produced three captains of a national team – all in the same sport, no less.
Orange Free State blood runs through these lads veins. When Nimrod Kaplan, a 1.93 meter No. 8 center, from Kibbutz Yizre’el was crowned captain of the Israel National Rugby team early in 2010, he was following a family tradition. His brother Yonatan, a 2.01-meter lock forward, preceded him in 2001 where he captained until the end of 2002 when he joined the IDF.
After his national service, Yonatan moved to the States and was twice chosen to play for the North East Select XV in the USA All Star Tournament.
During his absence, Nimrod made his international debut against Lithuania in 2004, which Israel went down with a 50-point deficit.
One can argue that the ‘turning point’ for Israel Rugby was the vital and important relegation match against Cyprus in September 2008.
Both Kaplan brothers were playing abroad as well as other experienced players.
They returned home to play in this “make or break” game. Raanan Penn of South African stock was appointed head coach and with grit and determination, Israel won 23-14. This proved a watershed moment for Israeli rugby.
In April 2010, when Nimrod scored the first try of the match 15 minutes into the game at Wingate against Greece, his team was well on the way to making history. Their 39-0 thrashing of the Greeks, advanced Israel for the first time in its history to the FIRAAER – Division 3B.
Yonatan in his second stint as Israeli captain has had remarkable success.
Both brothers have more than 20 caps under their belts, and are an inspiration and role models for future budding rugby players to emulate.
The ‘Flying Dentist’
One former South African who has been watching Israel’s progress with pride is new immigrant Wilf Rosenberg.
A resident of Beth Protea, he is considered one of the greatest Rugby Springboks of all time.
In 1994 he was included into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. Dubbed the flying dentist, because of the way he would fearlessly hurl himself over the try line.
The son of a rabbi, he first made it big with the South African Springboks and later with Leeds Rugby League Club where in the early 1960s he broke the single season scoring a record 48 tries. A record that still stands over four decades later, the other record that still exists is that Wilf is the only Jew to have ever played Rugby League.
When his father, the rabbi of Jeppe Synagogue, was once asked by one of his congregants how he could preach about respecting the Sabbath while allowing his son to play rugby on Shabbat, the rabbi responded: “My son was born with a God-given talent. Who am I to argue with God?”
2015 World Cup Qualifiers
Israel’s first president, Chaim Weizmann once remarked: “We believe in miracles, but we have to work hard to make them happen.”
In a country that not only prays for, but depends on, miracles whoever would have thought that Israeli rugby would make it to the 3rd round of the World Rugby Cup ( Europe qualification).
The European Zone of qualification for the 2015 Rugby World Cup saw 31 teams competing for two places at the finals in England and one place in the playoff.
Israel was already confirmed as Division 2B winners before beating Denmark 46-3 in Wingate, a result which lifted it two places to a new high of 50th in the IRB World Rankings.
The blue-and-white also beat Latvia, Andorra and Serbia.
Israel then advanced to the second stage, and in a memorable away game beating Luxembourg 26-12 it advanced to the third round. The match was played in October 2013 in front of 1,500 cheering fans at Wingate.
Netherlands proved too strong and although Israel lost 52-8, the Israeli squad with Yonatan Kaplan at the helm, his brother, Nimrod, and other South African contingents playing their hearts out, they did their young country proud.
While each and every event was special at the 19th Maccabiah in July 2013, for many, noting from the record attendance, the rugby final was the “froth on the beer.” There was hardly a blade of grass to stand on, never mind a seat in the stands at Wingate, and local businesses with South Africans employees noted their conspicuous absence as few were prepared to miss the spectacular final.
And what a final it was! Israel, for the first time in Maccabi history, took gold by “donering the bliksem Ozzies,” as one excited former South African Israeli so eloquently expressed.
Australia had came to the finals with the goal of reclaiming its gold medal from 2009, but it was up against a fired-up Israeli squad that was playing “for destiny,” as expressed by the team’s captain, Yonatan Kaplan.
Thanking the supporters, Yonatan expressed to the media that “We hope in the next Maccabiah more teams will participate because it has proved such an extraordinary crowd-pulling event.”
Should the stadium again be packed, folks are advised to “book their blades of grass well in advance,” says the brothers proud father, Milton Kaplan.
His other son, Nimrod, was no less fired-up in captaining the seven-a-side team and, thus, for the first time in Maccabiah history, two brothers captained two separate national rugby teams.
Forward Pass
Had you asked your average Israeli a few years ago what a ruck, maul, lineout or scrum was, they would have raised their eyebrows reflecting total ignorance.
Today, it’s a different picture.
As Israel’s legendary foreign minister Abba Eban, once remarked, “Israel’s future is destined to be longer than its past,” so to will it be with Israeli rugby that has enjoyed such a glorious journey since its humble beginnings in 1952, when the first recorded match was played with a shoe wrapped in a towel as the ball.