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Hapoel Rishon Letzion wrestled the handball champion's title away from Maccabi Rishon Letzion yesterday in the fifth game of the playoff's dramatic final series, bringing an end to its municipal rival's four-year dominance over the league.

Veteran Hapoel player Idan Maimon led his team to a 25-25 draw with Maccabi at the end of legal time. Hapoel was awarded the title because it had won two previous encounters and tied another whereas Maccabi had won only once. "They eulogized us before the start of the season," Hapoel coach Saar Frankel said yesterday.

"But through hard work and training we slowly got better until we reached this high point, achieved through team work, not individual play, as the goal scorer sheet shows."

Hapoel got off to a bad start at the packed Rishon Letzion auditorium when its star Maimon made three turnovers at the beginning of the first half, but tenacious defense on Hapoel's part prevented Maccabi from getting too much of a lead. By the middle of the first half Hapoel was ahead with a six-goal advantage, 11-6.

Maccabi fight back

In the second half Maccabi players made a comeback and, as the game came to a close, even took a two-goal lead that would have won them the title. When Maccabi's star Gal Avraham was benched, Hapoel took advantage and tied the game at 24 each. Hapoel players added another goal with 40 seconds until the end of the game, but Maccabi hit back with seven seconds to go, again tying the game. However, Hapoel held on to the ball and went on to win the championship.

"Hapoel deserve our respect," Gilad Maor, the sometimes arrogant coach of Maccabi, said after the game had ended.

He added: "I think back, on how my players said when they were behind in the first half that they would come back - and they did. But eventually we lost and, in any event, I would like to thank the crowd for adding excitement to the game."