AFL player Nic Naitanui’s epic Israel experience

Nic Naitanui (front row) with the Tel Aviv Cheetahs AFL team in Israel recently.

COMING off a second knee reconstruction in as many years and missing out on the West Coast Eagles’ 2018 premiership triumph, star AFL ruckman Nic Naitanui would have been excused for laying low and enjoying some quiet time during the off season.

But the 2012 All-Australian big man chose quite the opposite, flying solo to Israel for a jam-packed and meaningful eight-day expedition, which played out in the public eye courtesy of daily updates on his social media accounts.

It didn’t take long for Aussie Rules-loving locals and the Australian media to catch wind of “Nic Nat”s adventures.

“The Four Hoarsemen” podcast featuring prominent Jewish journalists Ashley Browne, Ronny Lerner, Daniel Cherny and Josh Kay spoke to Naitanui early in his trip while in Tel Aviv, while ex-Melburnian and tour guide David Cherny (Daniel’s uncle) jumped at the opportunity to show the visiting footy star around.

“People look and then look again and think surely not … what’s he doing here on his own? He’s got no mates,” Naitanui told The Four Hoarsemen podcast.

“I travelled across here to try to escape the Aussies, but they’re everywhere.

“But it’s good. They love the footy, the small expat community that’s over here at the moment.

“There’s a fair chunk who are Collingwood supporters. So they aren’t too happy with me,” he joked.

Shir Shalev, captain of the Tel Aviv Cheetahs who compete in the AFL Europe competition, extended a cheeky invite to Naitanui on Twitter to come and meet the team, which amazingly eventuated.

The 28-year-old ventured down to Sportek Rugby Field in Tel Aviv to the Cheetahs’ weekly training session and was mobbed by a 50-strong squad of locals, Australian expats and gap year participants.

A long way from the pristine surface and facilities at Optus Stadium in Perth, Naitanui helped run drills and provided some words of wisdoms for the star-struck team.

“It was a great honour for all of us to meet such a legend,” Shalev said.

There was plenty of time for general footy chat and photos, and one that did the rounds was Naitanui being officially welcomed into the fold with the presentation of a Tel Aviv Cheetahs guernsey.

As was the case throughout his trip, it didn’t take long for Naitanui to update his followers.

He tweeted, “Awesome to see footy played on the other side of the world. Not only is it keeping these guys fit but it’s breaking down barriers. Love the power this game possesses to encourage cohesion! #tlvcheetahs”.

Nic Nat’s willingness to reach out and promote the game even on holiday comes as little surprise considering the tireless work he has put in for most of his decade-long career as an AFL multicultural ambassador.

The 161-game veteran has been plagued by knee injuries over the last few years.

Although rehabbing while on holiday wasn’t high on his priority list, a Jewish physiotherapist originally from Melbourne reached out.

David Borowski (incidentally a big Pies fan) from Momentum Physiotherapy in Tel Aviv sent Naitanui a message offering his services, and the injured Eagle accepted, and spent two hours at the clinic receiving treatment and exercising.

Naitanui hopes to make a playing return by round 10 next season, a quicker recovery than his last knee injury. And his decision to take the chairlift to the top of Masada rather than walk the challenging trail probably helped his cause.

It didn’t take long for him to discover Israel’s popular food culture, which infamously got the better of former Kangaroo and current Magpie Daniel Wells two years ago.

“I think they eat about two kilos of hommus every day,” Naitanui told the podcast. “I’ve got to stay away from that stuff and the bread as well.

“Every meal comes out with about two loaves of bread, so my skin folds aren’t doing too well. Every morning I’ve been having shakshouka, so I’m trying to claim it’s healthy. Israeli food is really good but at the same time it’s really bad for people like me.”

A mix-up with his Airbnb booking saw him spend his first two nights in a not-so-popular part of Tel Aviv, but it wasn’t all bad, with a friendly neighbour inviting him over on his first night in Israel for a Shabbat meal. Naitanui described it as “a banquet fit for a king”.

The Sydney-born Fijian said visiting Israel was a life-long dream as it holds personal religious significance for him as a devout Christian.
“My family came across here about five years ago and they obviously raved about it.”

Early in his trip he visited the Old City in Jerusalem. “Growing up with a pretty strong Christian faith with my family … so surreal and overwhelming to walk the path of the crucifixion and visit the tomb of the resurrection,” Naitanui said.

Later that day, and a week out from the 101st anniversary of the Battle of Beersheba, Naitanui visited war memorial sites in Beersheba, including the Park of the Australian Soldier and the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery. The next day he said “Shalom from the lowest point on earth,” at the Dead Sea.

A significant experience was when “Dave (tour guide) dropped me off at the border to go into Palestine and get in [a car] with another guy, so that was an eye-opener for me not knowing what was happening, and why certain people can’t cross the border and go into certain countries.”

Again taking to social media, Naitanui posted, “Jerusalem, such a humbling experience – welcomed by an Israeli guy! Then to cross into Bethlehem and be accommodated by the most beautiful Palestinian man. Some amazing stories shared today #FijianIsraeliPalestinian #beyondborders”.

Rounding out the last few days of his epic Israeli trip, Naitanui enjoyed views of Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives and Mount Scopus where he was given a West Coast Eagles-themed wreath to place at the Jerusalem British Military Cemetery.

Nic Naitanui preparing to lay a West Coast Eagles wreath at Mount Scopus, Jerusalem.

Meaningful visits to Yad Vashem and ALYN Hospital were organised by the Australia–Israel Chamber of Commerce, as was a meeting with Australian ambassador to Israel Chris Cannan.

There was an attempt to organise a meet and greet with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, due to Naitanui’s similar sounding last name. Naitanui told the Four Hoarsemen podcast that, “Everyone’s calling me ‘Bibi’ over here”.

In signing off from Israel, Naitanui posted an emotional summation of his time in the region. He said, “We truly are so lucky to live in Australia. Going to bed without the fear of uncertainty like some families in this part of the world … breaks my heart to witness and feel it first hand, not just the news’ perspective.

“This is REAL LIFE out here. I was urged not to visit these parts and I’m so glad I ventured to this beautiful place on earth and hopefully my trip has opened others’ eyes to the beauty as well as the dark reality out here.

“I’ll never fully understand the cultural/political conflict in this region and I’d be ignorant to believe I ever could. All I know is that I’ll leave with a better appreciation for the life I live at home.”

AARON FETTER