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AS CLOSE AS THEY CAN GET: Israeli national team players posing with the Webb Ellis Cup, the trophy awarded to the winner of the Rugby World Cup, following their victory in Luxembourg two weeks ago. Dina Humphreys Photo by Courtesy the Israel Rugby Union
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Israel takes on the Netherlands at 3 P.M. on Saturday at the Wingate Institute of Physical Education in the third European qualifying round for the 2015 Rugby World Cup finals, to be played in England.

The Israelis will be aiming for a sensational win that would oust the Netherlands from the qualifying competition at an unexpectedly early stage.

“This is the strongest national team we have ever played against, but we are ready for the challenge,” national team coach Ra’anan Penn told Haaretz yesterday. “We will play to win. We know it will be very hard. We’ve never played a team of this level, but we believe in ourselves.”

Israeli rugby has been breaking new ground for several years now as
 Penn’s charges rise in the world rankings. Ranked 61 only two years ago and in the 80s and 90s during the previous decade, Israel has leaped to an unprecedented 48 on the International Rugby Board computer with string of victories in this campaign.

Yet the team will have to excel if it is to beat the experienced Dutch, ranked 35 in the world. For the sake of comparison: The Netherlands boasts 8,000 registered rugby players, while Israel has fewer than 700.

“In training this week we’ve been focusing on fast decision-making in the breakaway,” Penn explained. “We expect a very rapid game from the Dutch, so we’ll need to quickly realign our defense when needed and keep pressing from the back. In the last two games we tried moving the ball more as part of a more open game plan. This type of game will be more difficult against the Dutch. We will try to play a more open game, but our understanding is that our attacking moves will have to be snappy and direct if we’re going to keep the Dutch on a back foot and beat them.”

In previous games, Israel has encountered the greatest problems in overcoming teams who are weaker physically but base their game on individual talent and a speedy back line. In these games Israel bolstered its defense by bringing back its highly mobile loose forwards, dominating the set pieces and putting points on the board when it mattered.

The Dutch will provide a different type of challenge: Their style of play is similar to that of the Israelis, with a massive front five forming the fulcrum for a tight, aggressive game of attrition.

“We had to curtail our preparations because of the Maccabiah [in July, which Israel won for the first time],” Penn explains. “For most of August the players were recuperating from that tournament.”

Two weeks ago, Israel overcame a spirited Luxembourg side - ranked 44 places lower on the International Rugby Board World Rankings - 26-9 in the rain at Stade Josy Barthel.

Last Saturday, Israel won a bruising 18-6 encounter in Belgrade against Serbia to maintain its perfect record atop Group B2. The first half was tight and balanced, with Israel going into the break 8-6 ahead through an Uri Abutbul penalty and a flying try from winger Yoni Radshkowitz.

Israel’s superior fitness saw the team through, as debutant prop Adam Rosenberg crashed through for a second try in the 48th minute and veteran Sagi Dotan added a third try two minutes from time.

“That was a tough game,” recalls Penn. “The Serbs battled for their lives. Of course, I was happy with the away win, but such ability will not suffice against the Dutch. We were not too happy about how we played, and have tried to learn the lessons. It’s all part of the learning process.

“We have many points to work on ahead of the game against the Netherlands. I trust my players and know that they will be able to adjust their game accordingly and turn up fully prepared.”

Israel comes into the game on an unbeaten run in Division 2B against Latvia, Andorra, Serbia and Denmark in the first qualifying round, before twice beating Divison 2D winner Luxembourg in the second round. On November 2, Israel is to meet Denmark in another Group 2B game.

The Netherlands, meanwhile, saw off Lithuania, Malta, Croatia and Switzerland to top Division 2A.

At stake is a fourth qualifying round encounter on May 10 next year with the Division 1B winner: Ukraine, Poland, Moldova, Germany, Czech Republic or Sweden.

Vociferous fans

Home advantage can play a massive role in such a game, and some of Israel’s success in recent years can be put down to its fervent fan base. Over 2,000 vociferous, occasionally boisterous fans will fill the Wingate Institute stands to cheer their team on and help charge the players up.

Proof of this came in Luxembourg – a team ranked lower than Israel – where the home fans motivated their players to such an extent that they stretched the Israelis for most of the game.

Israel’s rugby fraternity has developed in parallel with the national team’s successes. No longer predominantly English-speaking, the mainly-sabra lineup features players who learned the game in Hebrew.

The road to the Rugby World Cup finals is a long one that nobody expects Israel to complete, but Penn’s pride in the fact that his team has got so far is obvious. As Israel Rugby Union officials are wont to point out, the national rugby team is now ranked higher than its soccer counterpart.

Like several other “minor” sporting branches in Israel, rugby suffers from a lack of funding that is holding back its development and blocking the game from breaking into the local mainstream sporting mentality. An Israeli victory on Saturday will send a clear message both to the rugby world and to decision makers here in Israel.