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Israeli rugby players sprint home

  • LukeSportYotan
Six or seven hours before President Cyril Ramaphosa was giving his second national address in eight days on Monday night, Israeli rugby player Omer Levinson was scrambling through customs at OR Tambo International Airport on his way home.
by LUKE ALFRED | Mar 26, 2020

He didn’t know then what we know now – that the country will effectively be locked down from midnight on Thursday – but he was still anxious to escape the claw of the COVID-19 virus and get back to the casual familiarity of the country he loves.

Home, whichever way you look at it, is always home, and Levinson was looking forward to seeing friends and family back in the Yizreel Valley of northern Israel.

The nuggety scrumhalf wasn’t alone. Down in the Cape, his teammate on the Israeli national side, Yotan Shulman, who had also been training in South Africa, was doing much the same thing at Cape Town International Airport. He, too, flew through a rapidly-closing window, as the world creaked towards lockdown as the virus gained global traction.

Levinson and Shulman’s South African rugby safari started in very different circumstances back in January. Thanks to Israeli national coach Kevin Musikanth’s Bridges through Rugby programme, the two had been invited to attend Frankie Horne’s elite South African Sevens Academy in Stellenbosch, where both impressed, acquitting themselves well.

Indeed, so valuable to their burgeoning careers was the Stellenbosch experience, that when their Israeli club, Kibbutz Yizreel, came calling, they didn’t go back together, but took turns to fly back home.

Shulman, a bearded lock, flew back first, helping Kibbutz Yizreel to a 22-19 win over Tel Aviv Rugby Club in the first leg of the final of the Israeli league. According to Musikanth, he scored a rollicking try, and was good value for his team, doubtless putting into play some of the canniness he’d learned during several weeks in the Boland.

While Shulman was scoring tries up north, so Levinson was playing for Horne’s Academy against Sevens teams from France, Russia, and the SA Academy in the Boland, a series of matches in which he excelled, says Musikanth.

The following week, the two swapped roles: Shulman returning to South Africa, while Levinson helped Kibbutz Yizreel to a nail-scraping 25-24 victory over Tel Aviv in the second-leg of the final, Kibbutz Yizreel taking the final over two legs by a slim four points to become national champions. “You could see the influence of their month or two at the academy,” says Musikanth. “They were both stand-outs in their respective matches.”

Shulman and Levinson’s return home is symptomatic, says Musikanth, of the global rugby system shutting down. In rugby, as in other walks of life, itineraries are no longer being honoured, festivals are being postponed or cancelled, and even something as everyday (and often boring) as practise looks like a quaint relic of more normal times.

“The bottom line is that it probably hasn’t really sunk in,” says Musikanth. “You can’t even practise anymore. You’re obviously in touch with the guys you coach electronically, and the guys are organising online practices and sending each other WhatsApp messages of encouragement about keeping up their personal programmes, but we’re wondering now about the sport itself.

“There’s a fear that rugby across the world isn’t going to be played at all this season.”

This said, Musikanth is also aware of the bigger picture. “We need to look at what’s happening around the world. I have rugby-playing friends and acquaintances in the United States, in Italy, where things are serious. There are some frightening things happening.”

Elsewhere in the rugby universe, Evan Speechly, a sports physiotherapist who was famously the Springbok physio during the World Cup in 1995, was doing his best to be positive where he could. He spoke to the SA Jewish Report late on Monday afternoon before the president’s speech later that night, and at that stage, was still hopeful that the two practices of which he’s part in Rosebank and Linksfield, could remain open subject to the usual protocols and precautions.

That remained the case when we spoke again at lunchtime on Tuesday, with Speechly saying that they were now going to focus only on the “absolute essentials”. He mentioned joint replacements and injuries – hip replacements and rotator cuff repairs that were clearly in need of physiotherapy and rehabilitation.

“Doctors will stop operating on these kinds of non-emergency injuries on Wednesday, and after that we’ll have to see how we can be of help.”

He said one of the peculiar advantages of the pandemic was that it provided opportunities for new ways of using technology, something he welcomed. “We’re learning to be wise in 2020,” said the man who in all likelihood won’t be serving the Royal Challengers Bangalore in the Indian Premier League as he usually does this season.

“As an older person, I’m certainly learning new stuff with Skype and Zoom, and that’s going to be the way we’re now handling things with our patients when we can.”

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