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How an Israeli team are fighting back through rugby

BY Jack Tunney  ·  Friday Nov 10, 2023

With the ongoing troubles between Israeli and Palestinian fighters at the forefront of everyone’s minds at the moment, rugby in Israel would be expected to take a backseat. Instead, as sport has done so since its creation, it is once again being used for positive means.

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CEO and founder of the Israeli team, Tel Aviv Heat, Pete Sickle has been keen to continue his team’s season, telling the Telegraph: “We reached out to the leaders of the rugby community in Israel through the Union and said, ‘There are much bigger issues than rugby at hand. Does it seem right for us to continue on with business as usual in light of the horrific atrocities?’

“We wanted to make sure we were representing the country in the right way. ‘Full steam ahead, don’t stop now’ was the answer.

“Guys are fighting on the battlefields of Gaza, and the Tel Aviv Heat will be competing on the pitch for Israel for the guys who cannot show up.”

It has been these attitudes that have brought players together in solidarity as they look to do their own part in a war that has already caused so much heartache and bloodshed.

We choose to say, f— you Hamas. You cannot tell us what we can or can’t do,” he continued.

“We had a plan for the season that has almost literally gone up in smoke, our whole season will be conducted outside of Israel. Opposing teams were not going to travel and some foreign players dropped out while others were on the verge of doing so until we said you will not be in harm’s way.

“We had to scramble to arrange things like Schengen visas via the Portuguese embassy in Israel. By the time we could assemble the team for pre-season in Portugal for our first game, we had a very short run-up.”

Tel-Aviv Director of Rugby, Kevin Musikanth echoed Sickle’s thoughts, stating: “The start of the season was almost like being in a horror movie. But we are one of the lucky ones – our profession is sport and entertainment.

“We are fortunate to have the world’s most diverse rugby team. We have all denominations and religions – Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists – across the team and management.

“Although there is a very uncomfortable feeling around life at the moment, hopefully, sport is somewhere we can express ourselves and play together.

“In 26 years of coaching, I’ve never seen someone choose not to pass the ball to someone else because of who they are. Never. Perhaps the world can learn a lesson from that. That’s the message we want to send out.”

TBILISI, GEORGIA – OCTOBER 16: Gabriel Ibitoye of Tel-Aviv Heatis tackled by Deme Tapladze of Black Lion during the Rugby Europe Super Cup 2021 Eastern Conference round 1 match between Black Lion and Tel-Aviv Heat at Avchala Rugby Stadium on October 16, 2021 in Tbilisi, Georgia. (Photo by Levan Verdzeuli/Getty Images)

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Sickle was keen to express his gratitude towards those other clubs, countries and communities that have supported their team in the troubling times.

“Gibraltar offered to host us, and we will eventually have our base in Cyprus, who have been very supportive. Rugby Europe reached out. We have lots and lots of expressions of condolence, support and concern.

“I would single out Saracens who, in addition to private communications, put out a statement of clear condolence for victims’ families and support.

“Sports teams, by and large, want to steer clear of politics – especially politics that causes passionate debates and controversies – so when a group like Saracens clearly puts their position out, for us, that says a lot about them and what they stand for.

“Stade Francais, a partner of ours, have been steadfast as well, and their support has been appreciated.”

Musikanth, who was previously the coach of the national team, stated his solidarity with the squad.

“What has happened over the last three weeks is really worrying, but we have to continue our trajectory and rugby journey,”

“Our plan is well-supported, and people want to play for the Heat and be part of the programme.

“We all want stability. But we are well-placed, having dealt with such difficult situations as a group, to continue accelerating our plan. If we can do it, anyone can do it.”

It is a sentiment shared by Sickle.

“We are fighting against the odds, but that is no different to Israel’s beginnings as a country.”

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