SYDNEY – When the Australian rugby team runs onto the field at the 2013 Maccabiah Games to defend their gold medal, they’ll be united like brothers – literally.
Within the 26-man squad are five sets of Jewish brothers, totaling 11 players. And the brotherhood also stretches to the coach, former Wallaby Glen Ella, who played fullback for Australia’s national team in the 1980s with his two siblings.
“It’s very strange to have all these sets of brothers – obviously I can relate, but I was only one set of brothers,” Ella said, referring to his brothers Mark and Gary. The player-turned-coach, whose appointment last year was hailed as a “coup” by Maccabi Australia officials, knows the power siblings can have on each other – and the team.
“From my perspective with my brothers, it had a positive impact,” he told Haaretz. “It’s good to have someone who knows how you react emotionally.”
Ella, who is Aboriginal, is also excited by his first visit to Israel. “So many people – other Australians, not just people from Israel or Maccabi – have told me how great it is and how it’s one of the most fantastic countries in the world.”
He said he hoped to visit the memorial at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem honoring William Cooper, an Aboriginal leader from the Yorta Yorta tribe who led a delegation to the German Consulate in Melbourne in December 1938 – just weeks after Kristallnacht – to protest the “cruel persecution” of the Jews by the Nazis.
“What a remarkable story,” Ella said of the only Indigenous Australian honored by Israel’s national Holocaust memorial and museum. “I’m very, very excited to get over there, experience the Jewish culture and hopefully come away with the gold medal.”
But he conceded that while winning the gold is difficult, defending it will “definitely be harder.”
Leading the charge on the field will be captain Keith Friedlander, who was vice-captain of the gold medal-winning team in 2009.
“To represent your country on an international stage, playing the sport you love alongside your best mates, all in your spiritual homeland – it really doesn’t get much better than that,” Friedlander said. “Captaining the team this campaign is an enormous honor that I will wear proudly.”
His younger brother Dean is making his debut at the Maccabiah. “A few years ago, the boys nicknamed my brother ‘2.0,’ the new and improved version of me,” Friedlander said.
Most of the team hails from Sydney, and many have South African heritage – an added bonus, according to Friedlander. “A large majority of us get to play together week in, week out and have done so for many years. We see ourselves as brothers-in-arms – figuratively and literally,” the 27-year-old Sydneysider said.
Like Keith Friedlander, David Davis is also hoping to repeat the feat of 2009. The Davis brothers grew up in Ireland, before immigrating Down Under. But pulling on the green and gold jersey is “an honor we take very seriously.”
His brother George, who is competing at his first Maccabiah, added: “The opportunity to represent both my nationality and my religion in Israel is therefore a massive, massive deal.”
The one trio of siblings in the team is the Ezekiel brothers: Daniel, Ben and Nathan. “My dad played rugby at the Maccabiah so it’s personally special for me that I can follow in his footsteps,” Daniel Ezekiel said.
“All three of us have a special bond. From a sporting perspective, we are all very competitive, passionate and just enjoy the camaraderie of sport and the challenges and opportunities it presents.
“Playing in the Maccabiah is more than just putting on a jersey or playing a sport but representing your religion and heritage, alongside family and friends,” Ezekiel said. “The commitment we all have for one another and the character as a team that we have is what makes this team special. It all starts with our captain Keith and develops from there. Hopefully we can defend the gold medal that the guys fought so hard to win four years ago.”
Experience is on their side. Jonathan and Antony Kastelan also relished that memorable moment at the final whistle four years ago. “I’m looking forward to running out again with the gold jersey on, and family and friends watching from the stands,” said Jon Kastelan, who has also played rugby in Hong Kong, the Philippines and Canada.
The 28-year-old Melbourne-based consultant said it was “extra special” to be heading back to Israel again with his brother. But he agreed that retaining the crown would be more difficult. “Defending gold is definitely harder because everyone’s out to get you; you’re the favorites,” he said.
The road to gold in 2009 was a roller-coaster ride. The Aussies lost to Great Britain in the pool stages and feared an early exit when they faced defending champions South Africa. But they bounced back, defeating Israel in the semis and gaining revenge against the Brits 19-16 in the final – the first time Australia had won gold in the sport.
“We will always remember and treasure an experience that no one can take away from us as a team,” Jonathan Kastelan said.
Kevin Jankelowitz agrees that the brotherhood is an advantage. “The brother combos form mini power teams,” he said. “Each scrum we can draw on experiences since we were little kids, like the times we would be wrestling on the couch trying to kill each other. We know how the other moves and how to combine our strengths to greater synergies. That’s probably our favorite part of the game.”
The Maccabiah, Jankelowitz said, is “the pinnacle sporting event of our lives.”
Glen Ella admits his team heading to the Jewish Olympics may not be giants in size, “but they’ve got big hearts” and they understand the magnitude of the Maccabiah.
“They are so excited to represent Australia in rugby,” he said. “It’s a World Cup or Olympics for these guys.”