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Discovered at 23

Discovered at 23

Israel national rugby union captain, Jonathan (Yoni) Shaki, spoke to the Sports Gazette’s Noy Shani ahead of their European Nations Cup encounter in Prague about how it all started for him in rugby and playing for one of Europe’s most improving sides.

Jonathan, also known as Yoni, who will celebrate his 32nd birthday this Sunday is a rarity in the world of sports.

At the age of 23, Shaki, of half Dutch, half Iraqi descent, discovered rugby out of the blue and has been a vital part of the Israeli team ever since.

Versatile Shaki, who plays as a lock, flanker and even as a number 8 captains the team which I escorted this late April in their mission to acquire first win in Division 2A of the European Nations Cup.

Under coach Raanan Penn, Israel were promoted three consecutive times in recent years, an achievement that saw them climbing up to a record all time ranking of 46.

However, lately things have proved a bit more difficult for the players who all hold regular day-time jobs. They lost their first three group matches against Switzerland, Croatia and Malta.

“Playing for the national team is what I am most proud of. Everyone has studies, work and family, but this is the highlight for me,” Shaki said from Prague before Israel face the group leaders, the Czech Republic, who won all their first three matches.

Getting into rugby happened for Shaki, an aeronautical engineer in his profession and an A.S.A Tel Aviv player, by complete chance.

“There was no room in the football team at my university, the Technion in Haifa, so I was encouraged to join the rugby team. Come and practice once a week they said.

“Before that I did not know what rugby is. Soon I was pushed even further and there was no way back,” he says.

The university team coach was the same Raanan Penn who is leading the national team, a side which freely advertises on its Facebook page that they are out looking for players.

“Do you play rugby, are you Jewish, were you born in Israel or do you have an ancestral connection? We want you, get in touch,” said one post there recently.

Shaki confirms this approach: “We are always scouting for talents and need ‘the blood’ of Jewish people to come make Aliya and join us. We learn a lot from them.”

This has seemed to work so far on one level or another with Israel attracting English, Australian, Argentine and Georgian-born players, among others in the last few years.

In the meantime, Shaki and his colleagues’ determination helped them to a 26-26 draw with a strong Czech side and time will tell if this experiment can succeed even further.


This story was first published on the Sports Gazette on May 6th 2015, available from here:

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