Despite such a sorry lack of funding that they have to change into their practice clothes in the bushes, Israel’s female rugby players are passionate about the game.
Rugby is a minor sport in Israel, and women’s rugby has hardly swept the nation in its wake, but the up-and-coming national women’s seven-a-side rugby team is looking toward the 2016 Olympic Games.
It’s 9:00 am on a Saturday morning as about 20 women charge onto the Tel Aviv Sportek rugby field for another intensive training session. Cyclists and joggers on the adjacent running track shrug in amusement at the incongruous sight, but these girls are serious. Women’s rugby was launched in Israel only about 10 years ago, but the national seven-a-side team is already ranked 16th in Europe.
“What the girls have done already is a tremendous achievement,” Daniel Cohen-Saban, who coached the team until last season, tells ISRAEL21c. “Most of them started to play at an advanced age for athletes and lacked the basics, but they put their hearts into the game.”
Yael Kenan has been on the national squad for five years. “For me it began eight years ago when I was studying physical education at the Wingate sports institute,” she recounts. “A friend kept telling me to join her for rugby practice, and after two months, I gave in to her nagging. I knew nothing about the game at the time – I still confused it with cricket – but I quickly caught the bug.”
In October last year, the International Olympic Committee decided to recognize rugby as an Olympic sport and seven-a-side rugby will debut at the 2016 Olympiad in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. “It’s created a quite a buzz here,” says Ishay Kenan, national team manager and Yael’s husband. “There will be qualification criteria, and nothing is clear as yet, but we’ll make every effort to get there.”
Passion keeps them moving up the ranks
“We have to prepare a six-year plan,” says Yael. “We’ll need to find and train new players. No one’s dreaming about medals, but we’re the pioneers. The [Israeli] girls have a better chance of qualifying than the boys do. It’s going to be hard work, but we want to be there.”
Right now, the squad is training for the next European Championships in Bucharest in May. Israel will compete in the second-tier Division A, having earned promotion in the Bosnia tourney two years ago. Last year the Israeli women finished the championship in 16th place, out of 34 European countries. “Results are improving from year to year, although last year we dropped by one rank, for the first time,” says Ishay.
The national quad currently features three English speakers, including a US-born convert to Judaism. “The players come from all sorts of backgrounds, including many students and a smattering of immigrants. They hear about rugby via word-of-mouth. Their passion for the game is what keeps them going. They invest no small amount of their own time and money in order to play, and really give it their all. They give so much for the sport, and get it back in enjoyment,” Ishay declares.
“It’s been hard work bringing them to this point,” says Cohen-Saban, an insurance assessor when he finds the time between his voluntary rugby duties. “I worked very thoroughly with a small group of girls, conducting intensive training two or three times a week. They don’t have a deep understanding of some of the basics – it needs lots of patience. They have never played [the full] 15-a-side [version], which makes it difficult to understand the complexities of the game. We worked on every detail over and over again.”
No future without infrastructure
Cohen-Saban was a rugby coach and player in his native Argentina before immigrating to Israel at age 30. He sees great potential in Israeli rugby. “It’s been a learning process,” he says. “We also lost a few games that we should have won. The basis of our play is teamwork. I tried to teach them how to work as a unit – there’s no room in sevens for individualism.”
“You have to understand the concept of the sport,” says Yael. “It’s a complex game, with many options. Our game is dynamic and tactical. We’re not as physical as some other teams, but we’re faster. I was a competitive swimmer for 10 years – but swimming is an individualistic sport. In rugby the team is the central motif.”
Rugby has taken her abroad several times. “The Tel Aviv team regularly competes in European tourneys. Slowly we built a national team, which has played in the European Championships five times already. We’re doing well. We’ve played against Austria, Finland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Romania, Bulgaria – all emerging rugby nations – and achieved results. Last year we tried to reach the World Cup Sevens in Dubai – it wasn’t realistic, but we reached the qualifying round, which was an achievement in itself.”
Rugby still falls under the category of non-Olympic sports in Israel, and lacks sufficient backing for developing the local game. “The sport has to be developed through high schools,” says Cohen-Saban. “If we don’t bring in girls aged 16-17, there’s no real future for women’s rugby in Israel.”
Women’s rugby teams have been formed and then folded, reopened and closed again, leaving the three stable clubs to compete in this year’s national league: Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem. About 50 players are regularly active in the local game.
There are obstacles, but there’s also the “third half”
“Some are students or former students,” adds his wife. “There are even a few mothers, like me. We’re trying to bring in youth, but it’s very difficult. Israeli teenagers today aren’t attracted to contact sports, and the girls prefer to dance or play basketball. Those who do play come with an open mind. They are shrewd heroes who aren’t scared of stigmas.”
She points out the considerable logistical barriers to developing the sport in Israel. “We lack fields and playing equipment. We even have to change into our rugby uniforms in the bushes, because there are no changing rooms. We work hard and are gaining experience, but still play only sevens. We need far more players to reach full 15-a-side rugby.”
Another limitation, notes Cohen-Saban, is the distance to play against rival teams in Europe. “The European teams travel to international games by train. We don’t have such a privilege.”
Yet despite the hardships, Israel has become a regular competitor on the European women’s rugby scene. “They have played against countries like Austria and Finland many times in recent years and have befriended their players, but as soon as the game begins they forget all that,” says Cohen-Saban.
Rugby – for the uninitiated – boasts a tradition of off-field comradery known as the ‘third half’. “We have a wonderful social network,” says Yael, who also coaches the Haifa team. “I was 25 when I started. Through rugby I have found friends for life. Having a baby has changed our priorities, but I do not neglect my rugby.”