ZIMBABWE Rugby Union director of rugby Liam Middleton was heartened by the Sables’ spirited second-half performance albeit in a losing cause against Russia, but admits a slow start to the match dealt the national rugby side’s World Cup aspirations a fatal blow.
The Sables’ hopes of a first Rugby World Cup appearance since 1991 ended on Saturday following a 15-23 defeat to Russia in a 2015 IRB Rugby World Cup semi-final playoff in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk.
Middleton, who was part of the Sables’ backroom staff in Siberia, conceded an early try and a penalty inside the first quarter of the match gave the Bears what turned out to be a lead enough for victory.
“We had a slow start to the game, which happens to the best teams in the world and it put us eight points down quite quickly. Ironically the eight points was our final point’s difference after the match,” Middleton said.
Russia took an early 8-0 lead with less than 10 minutes on the clock through a third minute penalty by fly-half Yuri Kushnarev and a try by full-back Igor Klyuchnikov’s try soon afterwards.
A second try followed for Russia in the 23rd minute when wing Denis Simplikevich dived over in the corner to make it 13-0 before Zimbabwe replied through a converted try by number eight Lambert Groenewald on the half-hour mark. Zimbabwe closed the gap to three points at 13-10 when Ross Cronje scored a penalty in the 48th minute, but Russia scored another try through Victor Gresev.
Kushnarev put Russia further clear with a penalty, and despite Tafadzwa Chitokwindo’s try for Zimbabwe towards the end Russia held on to reach the final.
“We played good rugby in the second half, but their sheer size gave them a try and penalty to open a small lead. Chitokwindo’s try was outstanding and pulled us back into the game. We had a couple of chances to open up their defence later in the game, but it didn’t quite happen and their lead was enough to keep them safe. We scrummaged very well with Pieter Joubert being a dominant force in this area,” he said.
The former Bristol RFC coach said lack of adequate preparations proved to be the decisive factor in this qualification campaign, but added that with adequate financial support the team had the potential to qualify for the next World Cup.
“Look, Russia are a very wealthy union running a fully professional league and national team programme. I felt we were the better team, but our opportunities for preparation could not be compared with Russia’s,” he said.
“This is a very good Sables team, who with the required resources and support could be an outstanding side. With the exception of a couple of players, the majority of this team will be available for the next qualifiers for the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan.”
The team, which is expected to arrive back in the country tomorrow, will regroup later this year for an end of year tournament similar to the Windhoek Lager Tri-Nations Rugby Series held in Namibia over the last two years.
“The next qualifier seems like a long way away at the moment so we have to focus on keeping this group together and adding more young talent to it and focusing on the next tournament which may be in November.”
Middleton said Zimbabwe would be launching a bid to host the tournament, which is likely to feature a European team to make sure the Sables play more home matches.
“At the moment there are only proposals being discussed by IRB, but we are expecting that the tournament will have a similar type of format to the Windhoek series potentially with the addition of a European team. I am pushing hard to host games in Zimbabwe. We need our rugby public to see the Sables playing at home and give our young players something to aspire to,” he said.