Israel's game against Finland on Saturday at the Wingate Institute stadium in Netanya will mark the national team's transition into a force to be reckoned with among minor rugby-playing nations. The final match of Division 3C of the 2008-2010 European Nations Cup will see Israel leapfrog over Greece to top the group, and provide an important warm-up for the challenging encounter with Slovenia at the same venue the following Saturday in the qualifying tournament's next round - a game that will double as the first preliminary round for the 2011 World Cup.
Israel is unbeaten in its division, having defeated the strongest opposition away from home, and places second in the group - but as losing teams are automatically awarded a point, it will leapfrog over Greece to top the final table. This means promotion to the next-highest division and a European Nations Cup qualifying match against the team that topped that division this year: Slovenia.
Israel climbed four places to reach 87 in the international rankings after the Luxembourg game. But the team is aware that although it is languishing in the wooden-spoon spot, Finland should not be underrated. The Finns only lost by two points to Greece recently, and beat Israel in Helsinki last year.
After six consecutive wins, Israel will go into the game with heads held high. "We're on a roll," says national team manager Julian Shapiro. "This run of victories has given the players the type of confidence that lifts them up a level. The national team has really improved over the past couple of years. They're a very strong group of guys, who travel from all over the country two or three times a week to train together, usually at Wingate. In Raanan Penn they have a young coach who's bringing the latest coaching methods from leading rugby nations."
"In the 10 years I've been playing for the national team, this is the best team we've had," agrees national team captain Shai Dekel. "Israel has some talented players, and the regular squad training sessions have produced a well-drilled pack. This is a young, dynamic squad, that can only get better."
Shapiro points to the team's strengths: "There's no internal politics in this squad. They all have a common interest. The team's strength is its pack. We have a strong group of forwards, who excel in line-outs, rucks and loose ball play."
He also notes the team's three foreign legionnaires: Nathan Amos (brother of Hapoel Kiryat Shmona goalkeeper Danny Amos), who plays semi-professionally in Northern Ireland; and Nimrod Kaplan and Matan Brosh, both of whom play for top-notch English clubs.
"The three players who play regularly at a high level abroad have brought a new dimension to our game - they play a more intensive, faster-flowing game than we're used to. They are more mobile and more match fit - and this brings out the best of the other players," says Dekel.
Shapiro points out that the team is nowadays mainly comprised of native-born Israelis, although a few of the players arrived as small children from English- or Russian-speaking countries. Dekel, 32, from moshav Moledet in the Jezreel Valley, is typical of the present generation of Israeli rugby players. "I started playing when I was 17, in nearby Kibbutz Jezreel whose team was then [made up of] South African immigrants. I've been playing for Jezreel's senior team for over a decade - now we speak Hebrew, although the team has been bolstered occasionally by overseas volunteers."
What drew him to the game? "I tried many sports, but rugby has extra dimensions: It is more aggressive and physical than other sports, but it's also more of a team sport. In rugby, you cannot win a game by yourself."
Like other minor sports in Israel, rugby suffers from a lack of both funds and media attention. While the local league has been in a state of extended stagnation for some three decades, and still boasts only six teams, the national team has at last aroused some local media interest. The game against Slovenia on May 9 is due to be broadcast live on the Sports Channel - a first for Israeli rugby.
"Rugby will remain a minor sport as long as the media ignores us," says Dekel. "I hope this increased exposure will bring in new players. There's a smell of change in the air after many years of stagnation. This is the first time Israel has reached this stage."
Meanwhile, the national team is also preparing for the Maccabiah games ("Jewish Olympics") in July, during which teams from Britain, Australia, America, Canada, Chile and defending champion South Africa will participate in the rugby tournament. In terms of spectator attendance, rugby is the biggest sport in the Maccabiah.
"We should win by a margin on Saturday," Dekel predicts, "but Slovenia will be a tough test. They beat us twice last year. Their game is based around their big forwards. It won't be an easy game, but from what we've seen of Slovenia, it's a game we can win. The Maccabiah will be a major challenge - we can win it this time, for the first time."
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now