Not renowned for oval balls, Israel’s Rugby Union game is on the up. Union president Menachem Ben Menachem speaks to JLife to get a status update on the sport in Israel and where to see a thrilling match in Tel Aviv.
Hi Menachem, so how did you get into rugby?
Hi JLife! I grew up in a small town called Ra’anana which was a favourite destination for many South African olim (new immigrants) from 1970 to 1990. When I was 16 a classmate invited me to join a rugby session which I did and that was it for me – I found my game!
I did not grow up in a rugby home or within the culture. There was no rugby union in Israel on TV during my formative years, so I did not have international heroes other than Israeli players at the time – names which are not known outside the country.
What does the role of president of the Israel Rugby Union involve?
I am in my 12th and last year as president. In small unions such as Israel – 1,000 registered men, women and youth players – the president does everything from representing internationally and nationally. You are in charge of the big picture: the vision, the long-term strategic plans on one hand, and on the other, due to scarce resources, you must do many day-to-day things… Like being a water-boy when needed!
Could you describe the popularity of rugby in Israel?
Rugby in Israel is very small and not known to the majority of the population. It will hardly ever reach the sport pages and only once in four years the Rugby World Cup will get coverage on payper-view sports channels.
In the last 10 years we have managed to make it much more established within the Israeli sport structure and to the relevant stakeholders, thanks to rugby sevens becoming an Olympic sport. In terms of public popularity, it’s a long process. We are growing well in our youth sections and our women rugby is growing nicely. There is plenty to do in developing the youth coming through by getting into the education system and increasing the level of club rugby generally.
Is there a women’s game?
Women rugby has grown very nicely in the past decade and we have six clubs with ladies teams included. We are successful with university students after their army service, but it’s a challenge getting Israeli girls aged 10 to 18 years to try the game.
For someone visiting the region, where’s best to watch a match?
The top two clubs in Israel for the past decade are Kibbutz Yizrael, near Nazareth and the Tel Aviv University side, ASA Tel Aviv, which has its home ground in the Sportek in Park HaYarkon. It’s always good to go and watch when these two clubs clash.
Other places to catch a game will be Wingate Institute near Natanyah, Haifa – where we also annually play our international games in March and October – and up north in Galil Elyon.
Is the Rugby World Cup in sight? How about the Olympics?
The Rugby World Cup is a distant dream. We will first be looking to progress within Rugby Europe’s championship structure. In terms of rugby sevens however, we have a high performance programme which we are looking to build into a competitive side for the 2024 and
Finally, what are your personal goals to achieve in your final year as president?
To give as many Israeli kids as possible a chance to experience the game.
Featured Image: Israel’s National Rugby Men’s Team