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130, February 2009 Latest update 9 2014f August 2014, at 4.39 am
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Photo by Jimmy Michel

Beit Jala Lions: Palestine’s First Rugby Team
By Paola H. Michael
They are a group of young athletes whose enthusiasm and perseverance are almost contagious. The Beit Jala Lions, formed a year ago, are the first-ever Palestinian rugby team. Rugby? In Palestine? For some here, it’s virtually unknown; for others, it’s considered to be a brutal and rugged game. Rugby in Palestine, however, has managed to develop into a fast-paced game of skill and determination, where the mind and body of these young Palestinian men are pushed to the maximum.

The story of how it all started sounds almost like a fairy tale. It began with a chance meeting of the Hungarian coach Martin Bisztrai and some young local guys from Beit Jala. Martin was here working on his studies when a group of locals noticed Martin with an odd-shaped ball and asked what it was. Martin told them that it was a rugby ball and went on to explain the game of rugby. After an introduction to the game and practice throws, the beginning of what is now the Beit Jala Rugby Club was created. They gathered a few more players and had their first practice with a group of young men who had never even passed a rugby ball before and, as they say, the rest is history! Now the Beit Jala Lions are the first all-Palestinian rugby team in history. Virtually all the players, ranging from high school and university students to hard-working professionals (ages 18 to 28), are from Beit Jala.

The Beit Jala Lions took their team seriously; so much so that they began to look for other teams in the Middle East to play against. A group of volunteers in Ramallah made it possible by setting up a second team in Palestine, the Ramallah Blue Snakes, with Jason Lomax in charge. The two teams spent April and May of this year in training sessions.

This past October, the team travelled to Cyprus to take part in the Paphos Tag Rugby Tournament 2008, and played against the Paphos Tigers and Limassol Crusaders. The coach felt that the team was ready to play a full-contact match, and they performed very well and won the tag rugby cup. This trip was made possible through the generous donations of the Irish Representative Office (which continues to support them), Bethlehem University, and various generous local sponsors.

During the same month, the team had a tag rugby match against the Ramallah Blue Snakes at the Taybeh Oktoberfest. It was quite an exciting experience for the team because international and local media were invited to the Taybeh Oktoberfest to watch the first tag rugby match in Palestine.

The team has gone on to host a Tag Rugby Tournament in Palestine, with some teams coming from Ireland. The game took place in Beit Jala, and this particular match is Tag, meaning no contact - strictly no contact or grabbing a player’s clothing, no kicking, no diving on the ball, and no spinning. It does not need any special equipment or a soft, grass-covered playground.

The team members regularly show up for training twice a week. They practice on Wednesday evenings at the Beit al-Liqa playing field in Beit Jala and Sunday afternoons at Al-Khader International Stadium. The Municipality of Al-Khader and the management of the stadium allow the Beit Jala Lions to use the stadium for two hours a week for free.

The story of this team may seem too good to be true, but it hasn’t been without obstacles. One big challenge is to find suitable playing fields on which to practice and play. In Palestine, space is rare and equipment is hardly available. The Beit Jala Lions are lucky enough to have Al-Khader International Stadium at their disposal, yet the hope of starting teams in other Palestinian cities is dim. There are only two stadiums in the West Bank - one in Jericho and a smaller one in Qalqilia. Therefore, most other Palestinian young people do not even have the resources or the facilities to start a team. Indeed this situation introduces a dramatic element to the special circumstances surrounding Palestine and the difficulty of its sports programme.

The young Palestinians on this exceptional rugby team know the harsh reality of the difficult economic and political situation, yet they go all-out and persist in making the team a success; and Palestine, which had never seen a national rugby team before, has a right to be hopeful about its first team and support it on its journey. The BJ Lions have worked diligently since last October and are now ready to play the Jordanians in Amman this coming April. The team aims to become a member of the Arabian Gulf Rugby Football Union, which is responsible for organising rugby leagues throughout the Gulf region. Their ultimate dream is to someday play in the annual Dubai Rugby Sevens, where the world’s top 16 rugby sevens teams compete for the championship. Another hope is to build a network of tag rugby in Palestine, which would encourage Palestinian sports clubs to organise their own teams.

The current team members are Nicola Stefan (coach from October 2008), George Antonio Maria, Jason Pollack (Assistant Coach), Samer Tareh , Jamal Abu Farha, Saleem Moussa Anfous, Pari Gedeon, Usama Khamis, Najeeb Makhlouf, Tony Ballout, Apo Sahagian, and Dr. Nassar Khamis, who serves as chairman.

For more information about the team, you can log on to the website, www.beitjalalions.com, or add yourself to their Facebook page.
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