Israel's women's rugby team takes hit in France

Daniel Sabban's girls remain positive, despite losing all three games at the European Sevens.

womens rugby 88 (photo credit: )
womens rugby 88
(photo credit: )
While attention has been firmly focused on the Euro 2008 soccer championships currently taking place in Austria and Switzerland, the Israeli women's national team made history this weekend with its first appearance at the European Rugby Sevens Championships. The 16-team tournament in Limoges, France, brought together women's rugby powerhouses including England, Spain, Portugal and Wales. Last month Israel qualified for the prestigious event after finished third out of 12 teams in a preliminary tournament held in Zenica, Bosnia. The finals, which began on Friday, were a tough test for the fledgling Israeli team, which was beaten in all three of its games in Pool C, although it improved as the weekend went on. In its first game on Saturday Israel lost 52-0 to the Netherlands, followed by a 50-0 defeat by Spain and then a more respectable 34-0 loss to Romania. England has dominated the competition, trouncing France 29-7 in the quarterfinals and is a favorite to qualify for the 2009 Women's Rugby World Cup Sevens in Dubai. The Israeli national women's rugby was only established four years ago, and, despite the heavy defeats in Limoges, all involved would be proud of qualifying, a level of success that has never been achieved before. When the team was first founded it was inexperienced and didn't "train properly," Liat Geller, fly half of the national team, told The Jerusalem Post before the tournament began. "We knew how to ruck - not very well. We knew how to maul - not very well," she added. "We played for the fun and not for the official competition," captain Mickey Veiztman said. Still, the Israeli women's team improved its ranking each year in the European Women Sevens Preliminary Championship, finishing in ninth place in its first tournament in 2005 and rising to third place just three years later. Sevens is a faster-paced form of rugby where the teams have only seven players as opposed the usual fifteen in rugby union and the games last only 20 minutes rather than the usual 80 minutes. The improved status of the Israeli side can partially be credited to the increased popularity of the local women's rugby league with new teams recently formed in Jerusalem, Haifa and Tel Aviv. This growth, combined with the retainment of several original members, from four years ago provided the national team with a greater wealth of experienced, athletic women to play in international competition this time around, Geller said. "Now that we have more experience, we are professional players," Veiztman said. The 10-women squad consists mainly of Israelis, but also includes members from America and South Africa. The national team traveled to Bosnia in early May to play seven games. Winning its first two games against Croatia 14-7 and Georgia 42-7, the Israeli team faced their first loss to Romania 7-22, the eventual winner of the tournament. "You're sitting there and saying 'one game that's terrible,' but we only lost one game," Geller said. The team bounced back from its loss to beat Bosnia and Austria, 12-0 and 5-0 respectively. It finished the tournament with a loss to Finland 31-0 and a win against Bulgaria, 7-5. Despite the defeat to Finland, the team was extremely excited to qualify for the finals. "We started screaming, dancing and crying because we were so happy. We realized that we have to practice another month, and we have to play the big names," Geller said. In preparation the team practiced about three times a week. "A lot of our ladies are students or are working. For the last eight months they left everything for this," coach Daniel Sabban said. The team has faced obstacles in scheduling practices and games because of the religious conflicts of many players and the small size of the league, Sabban said. It is also at a disadvantage because it does not have the opportunity to compete in many international competitions and the league is so small, Sabban added. "The very key thing is being mentally ready because if we take even one game, this will be a big deal," Geller said before the finals began. "We're not at their level and we know it. But what are you going to do - go and be like a tourist, or go there and be proud and represent your country? We're good because we earned it." Players on the team said they hope that their participation in the finals will gain international and domestic recognition of the great improvement of the Israeli women's league. "It's shown how much we've progressed over the years," Geller said. "It's nice to get recognized, so maybe women's games won't be thrown in between the men's games in tournaments they will have here in Israel next year. I hope they'll recognize how good we are and how good we can be."