Birth of the Blues

March 31, 2013 by David Weiner-Maccabi NSW
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Maccabi Rugby started in Newcastle in 1968…today it has over 400 members – all invited to a pre-Maccabiah reunion.

An invitation in the Australian Jewish News, posted by a group from Newcastle, for a meeting in a Bondi flat – to which one person turned up.


Early winners

Early winners

Who would’ve thought that get-together would have been the birth of Maccabi rugby in Sydney, where some 44 years later 26 Aussie Jewish rugby players would be building on the legacy of that inauspicious meeting, by travelling to Israel to defend their Maccabiah gold medal.

David Lyons recalls the meeting vividly, as a group of boys from Newcastle waited eagerly to see what kind of response they would get to their shout-out, only to see one person – a “giant man” – walk through the apartment door.

“Jewish rugby is always looking for forwards,” David quipped.

“Even though only one person came, we thought all our prayers were answered!

“It gave us the confidence to move forward.”

As part of the preparations for the Games, the Maccabi Rugby club are holding an “Australian legends of Jewish rugby” function on April 7, where the club hopes to re-unite all the players who have previously played for the NSW club or the Australian Maccabiah side.

Four and a half decades and a couple of re-births later, the rugby club is as strong as it’s ever been.

And it’s birth, told by David to a rugby committee who have been documenting the club’s history in recent months, beautifully captures the essence of Maccabi sport – while explaining why a few blokes from Newcastle started up a club in 1968, which they called “Ilan” or “tree”, before affiliating with Maccabi NSW in 1970.

“Newcastle had quite a vibrant Jewish community in the 1950s, we played rugby together, on the beaches of Newcastle, with various club,” David recalls.

“When we ‘migrated’ down to Sydney, as Jewish youth did in those days, there was a need for us socially to meet Jewish youth in Sydney.

“Leo Hillman … came up with the idea of forming a Jewish rugby team, which would share interest within Jewish guys and broaden our social circle.”
Use of a few contacts, a Maccabi Senior Carnival in Sydney and some hard work saw the group scrape together a team in the early years, picking up players on the way from Shule, ringing around to field a team each weekend.

Trevor Collins, Frank Magan, Bernie Riesman helped steer the ship in the early days; Steve Lenn – a player destined to play first grade rugby league – joined the team soon after. Former Australian rugby representative Myer Rosenblaum coached the side, his son Rupert played in it and the side did reasonably well at that level.

But the catalyst for the club’s early success came in 1970 – luring Randwick Colts player Michael Rosenfeld to the club as captain-coach – in the year the group affiliated with Maccabi NSW.

mf005It culminated with an unlikely premiership in 1973 in the Walker Cup.  Against the formidable and undefeated Freshwater Lifesavers, the much smaller Jewish outfit caused the upset of the season.

But importantly: “We attracted a very good crowd (to Woollhara Oval for the grand final).

“It attracted a lot of guys playing rugby who didn’t want to be associated with Maccabi.

“We really performed – tremendous heart, tackled and tackled and tackled a big bruising side and we ended up winning.

“It gave us a lot of kudos, so the following year we had two teams.”

Some names still associated with the club started to come through the ranks: Richie Bowman, the Fester brothers, Irvin Selby …

“We went from strength to strength,” David enthused.

There was a grand final loss in ’75 before a win in ’77 and a draw in ’70. A tour to Israel in the early 1980s helped promote the introduction of the sport at the Maccabiah, before a maiden appearance at the Games in 1985.

Indeed, the club came a long way from that first uneventful night in Bondi.

But like all booms and busts, the end of that era saw the club dwindle away until it stopped in 1988.

Current Maccabi NSW board member and rugby veteran Paul Lawrence picks up the story.

“In 1990 we reformed … (but only) played until mid-season of 1991, as we had injuries to key players, a couple of deaths and no depth, no mobile phones or internet.

“Funny how we had to make calls after 6pm on a week night from the house phone.

“The core group of players (7) went onto play league with UNSW and won three premierships 91, 92, 93 including the NSW State university competition.”

Maccabiah was the catalyst for a reformation in 1996 ahead of the 1997 Games, but again, depth eluded the club. Lessons were learnt ahead of the 2006 reformation, with a concerted push made by the likes of Ben Einfeld and his team, consolidated by DavidGreenstein and now Steve Cohen, to the point that the club is thriving as a popular event each weekend in Sydney’s east.

There is still a tangible link to the club’s history too; Steve Linker and Paul still play, while David Meyres and Shraga Gold, also from the 1980s vintage, have also taken the field from time to time in recent seasons.

So it’s off to Israel in July for a group under the tutelage of former Wallaby Glen Ella.

Team manager David Greenstein says of the squad: “there’s some tall timber, a good forward pack, good speedy backline. We’re hopeful. I won’t say we’re confident, but we’re hopeful we can do a really good job defending the medal. I’ve got no doubt we’ll be competitive.”
There’s plenty more we’ll hear about this side, which incidentally, features five sets of brothers – Keith & Dean Friedlander, Nick & Simon Molnar, Jonathan & Antony Kastelan, Dave & George Davis and Daniel, Nathan, Ben Ezekiel.

And the rugby committee has done plenty of more digging around the archives to create a spectacular night next Sunday to pay homage to the club’s past, filled with more anecdotes from the club’s annals.

Club patron David Emanuel, a Jewish Wallaby, and Arthur Summons, a Wallabies and rugby league legend, will be guest speakers on a night where the club’s past, present and future will get together under one roof for the first time.

Info: the club has a list of over 400 past players and any that have not been contacted should let us know by contacting allan nahum

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