JUST when a priceless ticket into the elite World Series core membership appeared to have been secured, the Zimbabwe Cheetahs let it slip through their fingers in a heartbreaking 19-22 defeat in the final of the qualifier in Hong Kong yesterday.
The Cheetahs had shown remarkable resilience, inspired by the brilliant Tafadzwa Chitokwindo, and appeared to have done just enough to beat Russia and, finally, land their place in the World Series core membership.
It all looked to be a perfect day for the Cheetahs, who stunned qualifying favourites Spain in the semi-finals, and in the crunch match against Russia, had their fate in their hands going into the last play of the match.
But, they were dealt a cruel blow, with the last play of the game, as Russia pounced for a try and victory that took them into the World Series core membership and condemned the gallant Cheetahs to another year in the wilderness.
There have been some heartbreaking losses, on the big stage, for Zimbabwean sports teams in the past but this one, given what was at stake, and that the Cheetahs were seconds away from a victory their resilience deserved, will rank up there among the worst.
In the end, one could not help but feel for the Cheetahs as they counted the huge cost of their loss.
Leading 19-17, in the final minute of the game, the Zimbabwe Sevens side had their fate in their hands and well on course.
But Russia came back, just as the final hooter went, with Vladimir Ostroushko — who had gifted Zimbabwe with a try a few moments earlier — scoring the decisive try with a run from his own half.
This means Daniel Hondo’s Cheetahs will have to fight another day for them to make it as a core member — an opportunity that comes once in a year — as they failed to realise their dream.
“It hurts to be on the losing end, we wanted to qualify as a core member. We had a great weekend of rugby and I am happy with the way the team played in all games particularly in the final against Russia.
“We leave Hong Kong a happy bunch because we played well but were unlucky,” said Hondo.
Ostroushko thought he had thrown away Russia’s Sevens World Series hopes when he dropped the ball in front of his own posts and handed Cheetahs winger Kudakwashe Chiwanza a try that saw Zimbabwe take a 19-17 lead seconds before the final hooter.
But Ostroushko quickly made amends with a stunning run from well inside his own half, in his team’s last possession, to give Russia victory in the qualifier final and a place in next season’s elite 15-team global circuit.
It seemed Zimbabwe were already celebrating when they kicked off after the final hooter but Russia, needing to score from one play, broke our hearts.
Russian coach Andrey Sorokin told the media that he had no hopes his charges were going to pull a sucker-punch as his players had shown signs of giving up before they pulled themselves together.
“I didn’t think we could do it . . . the players gave up for about two seconds but then we regrouped and Ostroushko made amends for his mistake.
“We are very happy to be among the top teams next season and I hope that we can be competitive,” said Sorokin.
Russia had taken an early lead and with a little over a minute into the game they were 5-0 up through Dmitriy Perov but Zimbabwe’s Chitokwindo converted touchdown saw Zimbabwe lead 7-5.
Russia sped ahead with two tries, one converted, via Yury Gostyuzhev and Eduard Filatov before Chitokwindo narrowed the gap with a converted effort to make it 17-14 to the Russians at half-time.
The second half featured tough tackling from both sides and, with seconds left, Russia looked to run the ball out of defence, which was the queue for Ostroushko to make his mark.
On their way to the final, Zimbabwe got the better of Spain — a side that had handed them their only defeat in group stages and prior to the loss to Russia in the decider — 24-14 in the semi-final.
Zimbabwe came back from 7-0 down with three unanswered tries to Chitokwindo, Stephan Hunduza and Boyd Rouse for a 19-7 lead at half-time.
Ignacioa Martin gave the Spaniards a glimmer of hope with a try to reduce the margin to five but Kilvan Magunje showed a clean pair of heels to extend the lead to 24-14, presenting the Zimbabweans with their first-ever win in a Series event over Spain.
But, in the final match against the Russians, it all fell apart for the Zimbabweans just when they appeared to have secured a ticket into the elite group that their industry, and pace, deserved after a good show in Hong Kong.