A Lafayette Hill native is taking the field in the first friendly women’s rugby match between Israel and the United Arab Emirates on May 21.
The match was arranged after the two countries normalized relations by signing the Abraham Accords last year and Israel’s vaccination rollout drastically reduced its COVID-19 cases.
Natalie Klotz plays prop on the Israel Women’s Rugby National Team, where she is one of four American players, and center for the Tel Aviv Rugby Club. She played rugby as an undergraduate at Brown University and loved the community it created, so she knew she wanted to continue once she moved to Israel in 2017.
Initially, she played on the Tel Aviv team because the national team’s rules required that she wait three years after her initial move to be eligible to join.
“It’s been a bit of a long way,” she said.
The pandemic postponed her ability to play in national competitions even further. Last year’s rugby season was canceled, and this season looked uncertain before Israel’s vaccination rollout started to send the country on the path toward normality. The team was able to practice together, but weren’t sure what they were preparing for.
Their training paid off when they learned they would play against the UAE. On March 19, the men’s teams met at Dubai’s Rugby Park in the city’s Sports City for the first-ever friendly match between Israeli and Emirati national teams in any sport, The Jerusalem Post reported. Spectators were not allowed in the arena due to COVID-19.
In the first game, Israel defeated UAE 33-0. The teams mixed players for a second game. After the competition, the Israeli team stayed in Dubai to celebrate and held an outdoor Shabbat ceremony with the Emirati team.
For the women’s match, the Emirati team will travel to Israel.
“It definitely feels historic. It was really cool to watch the boys go. We’ve kind of been waiting for that moment for ourselves,” Klotz said. “Having the Emirati team come now that these borders are open and especially in COVID and this being our first international match in almost two years, it feels like it’s kind of monumental in many ways for us.”
Reut Ben David, a national team manager, thinks sports can play a key role in expediting relationships between the countries.
“Sport is a good platform and a very clean platform to normalize relationships between any two groups,” she said. “It doesn’t have any politics in it, it’s just people coming who want to play and want to have fun.”
Even before the pandemic hit, national team coach Omer Chalfi said rugby players faced challenges due to Israelis’ disinterest in or even ignorance of the sport. When he tells people he coaches rugby, he is often met with confusion. When he tells people he coaches women’s rugby, they are even more surprised.
“We don’t have a professional league, everything’s an amateur level, which means it is much more difficult for the girls. They’re not getting paid, they’re all working full-time jobs on their own time, they’re training, they go to the gym, they’re there on their own time,” he said. “It’s much harder to be an amateur athlete than a professional one in that way because we expect them to train almost as a professional athlete, and they have their own personal life and their work.”
For Klotz, the sports culture in Israel feels different from the sports culture in the U.S. She said it’s difficult to recruit young adults who go straight from high school to the army, and there are few universities that offer sports scholarships.
But the beauty of rugby, she said, is that it is possible to become a good player quickly. You just have to put in the time.
“It’s one of the few [sports] that you can go to the first practice without having heard of it, and you can be a very competitive player in one year, as long as you are willing to give it a go and not be scared, and it has a lot of room for new players,” she said.
Now that it looks like Israel and other European countries will be safe enough to allow travel, the team plans to travel to Serbia in June to play against European teams in the European Rugby Champions Cup.
Ben David said the women’s team has received sponsorship from the city of Netanya, which will work to publicize the upcoming UAE match, and Athena, the national program advancing women’s sports in Israel.
“It’s a very good opportunity for us to make ourselves public and to raise awareness to rugby and women’s rugby specifically,” she said.
Editor’s note: The women’s rugby match between Israel and the United Arab Emirates has been canceled due to ongoing security concerns.
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