The next few months promise to be an exciting – and potentially pivotal time for Israel’s rugby women’s team as they look to realise their ‘dream’ of qualifying for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio.
A burgeoning sport in Israel, and one which is in desperate need of funding, the team, which has been in existence for 15 years and started competing in Rugby 7’s in 2005, is made up of 12 semi-professional players, who all play the game on a voluntary basis.
Most of the players have played for the national team for three years, their most capped is Ira Levin who’s been in the team for nine years, while another, who is hoping to help make sporting history for Israel is British-born Melanie Kraus.
Having made Aliyah in April 2013, the 25-year-old, who is half-Welsh, half-Irish, currently plays for the Tel Aviv Amazons, one of five teams which makes up the domestic women’s League. Having started out playing for the Jerusalem Lionesses, this will be her first year playing for the national team, and she’s hoping to be able to help make her mark with the side.
Admitting the sport is more of an up-and-coming one in Israel, she says: “Most Israelis I know have no idea what rugby is, or they confuse it with American football. When they understand what the game is and that it’s women playing it, they become even more confused, with a typical response being “but you’re not built like a tank…”
“The game is getting more popular and a lot of work is being put into development, but particularly with women’s rugby, old stereotypes die hard. A lot of women are put off by this, and a lot of parents are put off by this for their daughters and don’t encourage them to play rugby when it’s on offer.”
The squad is a talented one though, so much so that they’re favorites for June’s European Division B Championships in Croatia, where a win will see them reach the European qualifying section for the Olympics.
“Most of the team have been playing three or four years together, which means our starting point this year is already quite high,” Melanie explains. “There’s a great deal of athletic talent and determination on the team and each time we compete internationally we realise more and more the extent of our potential. We’re currently on par with the high-ranking teams in Division B. We had a very close match with Romania last year who went on to win third place in Division A which is obviously encouraging.
“We’ve finished third two years in a row and last year were the second highest scoring team in our division. We feel this is our year, confidence is high but we know we need to put in a lot of work.”
Getting funding for the team is though an issue, with little in the way of support coming from the government. Melanie explains: “We started a fundraiser to help us cover the costs for the Athens Cup [a preparatory tournament for Croatia] but also made a decision as a team to participate no matter what. Whatever we don’t manage to cover with the fundraiser, the players will pay out of their own pocket. Hopefully it won’t come to this as very few players on the team can afford it on top of the time and travel expenses they are already giving and paying respectively.
“To establish ourselves on an international level, we need a greater international presence and in order to do that, we need more funding. To get more funding, we need to be more established on an international level by having a greater international presence. It’s a vicious circle.”
Such is their financial situation, their budget only allows them to have a physiotherapist to work with them once every three weeks. Melanie says: “We do our own injury taping and get physiotherapy via general state health care. When you love each other the way we do, and are so committed to the sport, you just make do and never take your eyes of the target.”
However, while qualifying for Rio is the ultimate goal, Melanie insists the team are taking things one step at a time. She says: “Rio is the dream, but right now we’re more focused on our short-term goals – performing well in the Athens Cup in March and then winning the European championships in June.
“There is pressure on the players, but mostly because we know winning is our ticket to public recognition, both within the rugby union and in Israel itself. We do though work with a psychological coach to keep us focused on our game and ignore the outside pressure.
With more recognition comes more funding which will allow the players to focus on training and competing internationally. There aren’t a lot of national sides from Israel who have made it this close to the Olympics so this would be great exposure for rugby and women’s sports in general.”
For more information on the team, and to donate towards helping the team play at the European Champs, visit: http://bit.ly/1AJGGf0