The Rugby World Cup is coming to England, and more specifically, Manchester. But what influence have Jewish players had on the game? Joseph Brown reports.
As the Rugby World Cup 2015 is coming to England on the 18th September, with one fixture at Manchester City Stadium pitting England against Uruguay on 10thOctober, it made JLife ponder about Jewish players in the game. There are very few rugby players, current or former, league or union who have played at the top of rugby and consider themselves Jewish.
Famously, Ben Cohen, who was part of the England team who won the World Cup in 2003 and most recently known for his stint on Strictly Come Dancing, is of Jewish descent, but does not consider himself Jewish.
Sporting talent runs in Ben’s family – his uncle is English World Cup winning football player George Cohen MBE who played in the side that won in 1966. Ben signed for Manchester-based Rugby Union team Sale Sharks in 2009, representing the side in over 50 matches.
Locally, Sale Sharks recently formed a new partnership with the Israel Rugby Union. Three members – Dekel Fleisch, Dor Perl and Uriel Mai-Jeiker – of the Israel Rugby Union’s Elite under-19 squad spent six months with Sale Sharks as part of the Rugby Year Abroad Project.
There have been a handful of Jewish South African Rugby Union players over the years. The most famous of which is probably fly-half Joel Stransky. Stransky is well-known for his role in the historic South African side to win the World Cup in 1995, in which he scored all 15 of South Africa’s points in the final against New Zealand, as portrayed in the film ‘Invictus’ where Stransky was played by Scott Eastwood, son of Clint, who directed the film. He is also known in this country for his two-year stint at the Leicester Tigers, in which he helped them win the Premiership. Stransky was born into a Reform Jewish home in Johannesburg, where he had a Brit Milah and a Bar Mitzvah. Although he says he is no longer a practising Jew, he still considers himself Jewish. He once quoted: “I want to get rid of the false stereotype that rugby isn’t for ‘nice Jewish lads.’”
One current rugby player is the United States Sevens legend Zack Test. He might not be a household name due to the fact he only plays in Sevens games (seven-a-side matches instead of the usual 15), however as Sevens rugby will be a part of the Olympic games in 2016, you might see the United States all-time record caps holder and points scorer replicate, or even better, his bronze medal at the Maccabiah Games.
Despite finishing top of their group, the Israeli national rugby team missed out on qualification for the tournament in England. Israel defeated all of their opponents with ease, including a resounding 46-3 victory over Denmark, which took them to the Round 2 Final, where they beat Luxembourg to take them to the Round 3 Final against Netherlands, where their hopes of reaching the World Cup were ended emphatically.
The team first entered the qualifying rounds for the World Cup in 1991, but have not yet qualified. This year is the closest they have come to qualifying. During the qualification for the previous World Cup in 2011, they also finished top of their group 3C, once again winning all of their games, and beating group 3B champions Slovenia in the playoff series, before bowing out against Lithuania. The most recent qualifying rounds show that there is progress for the Israeli national team.
The Israeli team have had some success in the Maccabiah Games. They are unique in the quadrennial event, as they are the only team who are allowed to have non-Jewish people in the team as long as they are Israeli citizens, meaning there are a number of Arab-Israeli competitors for Israel. They won the most recent games, beating Australia in the finals.
Team GB haven’t been as successful as their Israeli counterparts in the competition, although they did finish runners-up in 2009, losing out to Australia. One of the members of that silver medal winning team is Aaron Liffchak, who currently plays in the RFU Championship (second tier) for London Scottish.