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Israeli rugby hones skills on SA battlefield

  • LukeSport21Feb
Two talented young Israeli rugby players, Yotan Shulman and Omer Levinson, arrived in the Western Cape in January for a five-month spell under coach Frankie Horne at the elite South African Sevens (SAS) Academy in Stellenbosch. This is a singular achievement.
by LUKE ALFRED | Feb 20, 2020

Horne identified the two players while on a coaching trip to Israel arranged by Israeli national coach Kevin Musikanth through his Bridges through Rugby programme.

The spell in Stellenbosch – in many ways the spiritual centre of rugby in the country, with its famous statue of Danie Craven and his dog Bliksem – is designed to fast-track two of the most exciting young talents in the Israeli game.

Musikanth believes that the best way for the sport to develop in Israel is if young Israeli players (both Shulman and Levinson are full Israeli internationals) expose themselves to best practice in other parts of the world.

Working with Horne – a legend in Sevens circles, who played Sevens rugby for South Africa for nine consecutive seasons – is inspirational in itself, but Musikanth hopes both Shulman and Levinson will return home both physically and technically better players.

“I’m very proud of these guys,” says Musikanth. “They’re rubbing shoulders with some elite local players in Stellenbosch, people like [former Blitzbok] Rosko Specman, and they’re creating a pathway for others to follow. I can’t say enough positive things about them.”

Both from the Yizreel Valley in the north of Israel, Levinson and Shulman are in South Africa as part of the Israeli army’s elite sportsman programme, which allows talented sportsmen to train outside of Israel as part of their national service.

Although both are the same age (21), the similarities end there, with Levinson being the little guy, (therefore, the scrumhalf), while Shulman is a full head-and-a-half taller. A big, bearded unit, it’s no surprise to find out that he’s a lock.

Both face a busy time this weekend when they’ll be playing for the SAS Academy against not only opponents from Maties and the University of Western Cape, but visiting teams from France and Russia.

In just over a month’s time the two, doubtlessly battle-hardened, will return to Israel for important internationals against Malta (away) and Cyprus (home) on consecutive weekends.

Musikanth will use both tests to gauge how much better Israel need to be if they are to rub shoulders with regional big boys like Croatia and Slovenia, sides Israel must consistently beat if they’re to make any impression on their regional sphere in the world game. “We’ve never beaten Malta and Cyprus, so next month’s matches are two very difficult games,” he says.

Bringing Levinson and Shulman to South Africa is all part of Musikanth’s project to improve rugby in Israel through exposure to the big boys of the sport. Playing stocks in Israel are small, so he’s also hoping that as the relationship between South African and Israeli rugby develops, he might just be able to dig up what he calls a “rough diamond” locally, particularly if South African players have relatives born in Israel and feel they might have a future playing under him.

“According to International Rugby Board [IRB] rules you can play for a country if you either have a parent or grandparent born there, or if you’ve undergone a residence qualification and lived there for three years. In the case of Israel, I’m hoping to unearth some guys who might like to play for us through that route,” he says.

Musikanth wears many hats, and while he is the Israeli national rugby coach, he’s also the director of rugby at King David Linksfield. This year, he says, King David has a talented bunch of players, many of them already having had first X1 experience in 2019.

Recognition for King David’s improved fortunes came in the form of an invitation recently to the elite St Stithians Rugby Festival over Easter, the oldest Easter festival in the country. King David will be playing on Easter Monday at Saints against Michaelhouse, a rare honour. “We’re thrilled to be playing at the festival,” he says. “It’s wonderful to be rubbing shoulders with the cream of South African schoolboy rugby.”

Musikanth is quick to point out that King David has not suddenly been catapulted into the elite division of South African schoolboy rugby after a healthy 2019. Turning the school into a consistent rugby performer will take time. Indeed, much of King David’s season will take place in the comparatively unnoticed realm of playing against the first XV’s of local Joburg co-ed schools, as was the case last year. This said, the curve is obviously upward, with King David having one or two unusually talented players in their midst in 2020.

For all the energy of the burgeoning relationship between South African and Israeli rugby, Musikanth’s Bridges through Rugby tends to drain money rather than make it. He’s always looking for benefactors and donations because not only is the cause a worthy one, but he has the habit of making a success out of whatever he turns his hand to. With him at the helm, Jewish rugby is entering a new dawn.

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