One week before the 70th anniversary of Israel’s independence from Britain, the English Men’s National Team invaded the Holy Land armed with poles, helmets, and an open mind.
Team England played five games in five days against Team Israel in five different cities spanning the country. Local officials, such as Netanya mayor Miriam Feirberg Ikar, Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat and U.K. Ambassador to Israel David Quarrey, came out for the events, and Sport 5, the largest sports channel in Israel, nationally broadcasted one of the friendlies live.
England walked away undefeated, though three one-goal games and consistent late-game drama illustrated the closeness of the competition.
But the wins and losses weren’t what mattered anyway.
Israel’s annual Holocaust Memorial Day was April 12, and on that day Team England took a trip to Yad Vashem during its tour of Jerusalem. No one in the program had been to Israel before, let alone Yad Vashem, and for some it was their first exposure to the Holocaust outside of a textbook.
“It was humbling,” said England midfielder Ryan Sweetman. “This day and age in the U.K., it’s not something you experience. You can’t even imagine the length of the experiences they had. To read about it, to learn about it, was eye-opening to me.”
For England head coach Tom Wenham, the day coincided with his son’s 10th birthday, which remained with Wenham as he mourned at the Children’s Memorial.
“It’s not an enjoyable experience, but it’s an experience you’re incredibly glad you’ve had,” Wenham said. “It directly resonated to see some of the very graphic images of all who lost their lives, but particularly the young kids. I know I wasn’t the only one. There were tears from a number of the squad, who were very open about admitting it.”
England also spent time exploring and learning about the rest of Jerusalem. A guided tour took the team through the Old City, hitting on some of the most well-known landmarks such as the Western Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, around the national government buildings and more.
“It made me speechless being there,” said England defender Jak Wawrzyniak. “The authenticity, the passion of the people, the different religions, ethnicities, cultures, everything in one place. It’s truly an amazing place.”
Wenham said he came to Israel without expectations, but he was still surprised by what he found at the Western Wall and Jerusalem as a whole.
“There’s tourists, there’s people who obviously it has an enormous significance and it’s a powerful moment for them, and then there’s just people walking by going about their business,” he explained. “It didn’t feel tense. It felt like people living side-by-side in a city.”
The Jerusalem experience wouldn’t have been complete without lacrosse. The teams were treated to a game under the lights at the Kraft Family Sports Campus, a brand-new stadium nestled among the city’s rolling hills, the exclamation point to England’s Jerusalem journey.
England also saw some of the rest of country moving between cities for games, which took place in Kiryat Gat, Jerusalem, Ashkelon, Herzilya and Netanya. This allowed England to interact with Israelis and see the daily local lifestyle outside of Jerusalem.
But for all the differences the team noticed, such as the nationwide slowdown every Saturday for Shabbat, what stood out most was how few there were.
“It’s just like anywhere else,” Wenham said. “It’s just people going about their daily lives. There’s factories, businesses, farms, hotels, shopping. We’re a small planet. It’s been no big deal really, in a very positive way.”
The team stayed in Netanya, the host of the fifth game of the series and the 2018 FIL Men’s World Lacrosse Championships. England slept in the same hotel it will this summer, and during down time the players had a chance to walk around the area and get to know where they will live for a few weeks in July.
“The most important thing has been finding where the best coffee place is,” Wawryzniak said. “You know where to get your water from, your sports drinks, your snacks, your whatever. That sense of comfort can help massively when you’re in an intense environment.”
The games also exposed England to a taste of the weather it will face in the summer. April’s heat is a ripple to the tsunami wave
July’s heat will bring, but a big step up from England’s rain and cold.
“We train at about five degrees tops, and that’s nothing,” Sweetman said. “We’re never going to get that heat where we’re at. To come here for five days benefitted us massively.”
On top of the heat, both teams had to face five games in five days, sometimes with fewer than 24 hours breaks, against one of the best teams Europe has to offer. Wenham said there couldn’t have been a better way to prepare for the Championships.
“You need to be battle-hardened,” Wenham explained. “What I keep saying to people is the World Championships are a grind. To be able to replicate that against a team that is so closely matched with ourselves is enormously beneficial.”
England may have been the visitor, but Team Israel gained plenty from the series, too.
“It’s going to be a grind playing in the heat, not much rest, and right back at it the next day,” said Israel midfielder Matthew Flapan. “This series gave us a chance to learn and grow as a team and develop and play against other high-level competition in Israel, which we don’t get too frequently. It’s just us practicing against ourselves week after week, so to be able to get five high-level games day after day to simulate the World Championships is a huge help.”
These games helped build the confidence of one of Israel’s youngest stars. Midfielder Ori Bar David wore the Blue and White in his hometown of Netanya for the final game of the series and scored a goal that brought everyone to their feet.
Late in the second half with the game tied at six, Bar David got the ball with momentum moving downfield. He noticed an Englishman in his way, but rather than side step his opponent, the 17-year-old lowered his shoulder and bulldozed to the net. He beat the goalie to cap a four-goal scoring run and give his country its first lead since the first half.
Bar David coaches a local youth team in Netanya, and his players were there to watch him play. He said their reaction made him feel like the role model.
“They asked for an autograph and couldn’t stop talking about it at practice,” Bar David said. “I knew I could play at that level, and it was perfect timing.”
Bar David’s goal, nail-biting finishes, England’s experiences in Jerusalem and at Yad Vashem, all the fans who watched the two sides do battle and more helped make for a tour so successful that both sides are certain it must happen again.
“I absolutely love it,” said Israel defender Harel Ben Harush. “I think England is the best team we can play against. We’re not going to get that competition anywhere else in Europe. England is at a level that pushes us to want to be better.”
Wawryzniak said continuing the series is a must.
“We have to,” Wawryzniak said. “You get an opportunity to live with roommates and build bonds within the team, which you can’t put a price on, combined with the fact that it gives us a look into a new place we haven’t been and to compete against different challenges and adversities. It’s something we have to do again.”