This is a big week for Israeli rugby. On Sunday, the women’s national seven-a-side team finished a commendable third in the Division B European Nations Cup held in Bratislava, Slovakia.
And this coming weekend, Israel will host for the first time the Division A European Rugby Sevens Championships, at the Wingate Institute for Physical Education near Netanya.
“It’s going to be a festival of rugby, unlike any other sporting event in the country,” Israel Rugby Union President Menachem Ben-Menachem told Haaretz. “The local rugby community will turn out in force. We expect about 2,000 spectators to show up, like they have for national team games in the past few years.”
Expect a fast-moving weekend, with an action-packed itinerary. Twelve national teams will play 42 matches over two days on the Wingate pitch.
Israel opens its campaign at precisely 10:36 A.M. on Friday with a crucial game against Latvia, and coach Ra’anan Penn hopes that at least 500 fans will turn up to urge the team on at such an early hour.
Later in the day Israel will face the tournament favorite Belgium, the strong Polish team, Croatia and Serbia. Israel has to beat at least two out of Belgium, Poland and Latvia, and not slip up against the weaker Serbs and Croats, if it is to qualify for the quarterfinals.
The other group will feature the Czech Republic, Moldova, Sweden, Denmark, Cyprus and the Netherlands. Saturday’s schedule will conclude the group games and after a brief break, the quarterfinals, semifinals and final.
Fast and furious
The seven-a-side version of the game is played on a full field, with each half lasting seven minutes. “It’s faster and more free-flowing than 15-man rugby, with less physical contact and more attacking play,” Ben-Menachem explains. “The pace can be fast and furious. From the spectator’s point of view, it is much easier to understand than the 15-man version, with its myriad infractions.”
“The sevens game is better suited to the Israeli athlete, who is fast and aggressive, but not necessarily physically big,” he adds.
The quality of Israeli rugby has vastly improved in recent years, and extra training sessions from former England international Peter Richards and English national team fitness coach Bert Davidson this year have pushed the level higher. According to Penn, this improvement expresses itself in a 15-20 percent jump in fitness levels and abilities.
The players to look out for in the Israeli side are captain Nimrod Kaplan, English-based scrum half Eitan Humphreys and fleet-footed center Modi Radshkovits.
Worldwide, seven-a-side rugby tournaments have taken on a festival atmosphere in recent years. “People come for the fun as well as the rugby,” says Ben-Menachem.
“At Wingate there’ll be a deejay and live blues, rock and folk music throughout the day at the Mike’s Place bar next to the stadium, lots of fun for children with an inflatable apparatus and face-painting, and rugby-related activities where even 80-year-olds can practice their passing,” he says.
“It’s going to be an all-day event, with constant music − a party,” says Ben-Menachem.
“In recent years we’ve been reaching out to expand the game in Israel,” explains Ben-Menachem. “Events like this help to expose rugby to people who are unaware of the beauty and spirit of this game.”
Seven-a-side rugby will debut at the upcoming Olympiad. Only 12 countries (including a combined UK team) will qualify for the inaugural Olympic tournament in Rio de Janeiro.
“We’re not planning around 2016,” Ben-Menacham admits. “We’ve still got some way to go, but we’re improving every year and on the right track; 2020 is a more realistic target. The fact is that Israel has a better chance of making the Olympic Games in rugby than in soccer.”
As for this weekend’s tournament, he says, “Our aim is to finish in the top four places. We hope to rise to one level higher, to the Grand Prix level where the top European countries play.”
Severn-a-side rugby will also feature for the first time in July’s Maccabiah Games, with junior and senior sevens tournaments alongside the full 15-man competition.
“Rugby is a growing sport in Israel,” says Ben-Menachem, a native-born Israeli who was a fearless flanker in his playing days. “I’m particularly proud of the way the women’s sevens team played in Bratislava.”
The Israeli women’s team, which failed to win a single game in last year’s tournament, beat Luxembourg (38-0), Latvia (15-7) and Andorra (36-7), losing only to Bulgaria (7-12) to finish second in its group. Israel opened the tournament’s second day with a resounding 22-0 win over Slovakia, but the Israeli squad, which by this stage was suffering from injuries, lost 0-17 to powerful Finland in the semifinal. In the third-place game Israel took revenge on Bulgaria for the earlier defeat with a hard-fought 10-5 victory.
The tournament starts at 9:30 A.M. on Friday and goes until 6 P.M. On Saturday, the games will begin at 10 A.M., with the final planned for 6 P.M.
Entrance to the tournament is free, although parking at the Wingate Institute is not. Spectators will be asked to donate NIS 20 to help develop the game in Israel.
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