Elena Zdrokova summed up the feeling within the Russia camp at the last Olympic Repechage tournament in Dublin when she said, “it felt like the world had collapsed”.
Russia breezed through to the final of the event to play an equally dominant Spain in a meeting of the top two sides.
But it was Las Leonas who came out on top, winning 19-12 to earn a place in the rugby sevens competition in Rio.
Then just a teenager, Zdrokova cartwheeled in celebration after Russia had beaten Ireland in the semi-finals but the Spain defeat left her on knees.
“I had just started playing for the national team and did not quite realise what had happened,” said Zdrokova, who finished the tournament as joint top try-scorer.
“We lost so many key players and, suddenly, we were unable to cope with the responsibility, psychologically.
“There was complete devastation, as if the world had collapsed, but that defeat made us stronger.”
Team-mate Baizat Khamidova, who is also set to play in a second repechage tournament, echoed Zdrokova’s thoughts about the missed opportunity five years ago.
“That was tough and hurtful. It was one of the most painful losses for our team,” she concurred.
One last chance
Now Russia have the chance to make amends. On 19-20 June, they will be one of the 12 teams contesting the last two tickets to the Olympic Games in Tokyo at the World Rugby Sevens Repechage tournament in Monaco.
At 30 years of age, Khamidova recognises she may never get another opportunity to play at the Olympics and believes the team is better prepared to make it over the line.
“This is the most important tournament for me now. Maybe, I won’t get a chance like this ever again,” she said.
“Now we have good bench players, they will help us a lot, for sure. Also, we have got better with our ball control and understanding of the field.”
After three months without training because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Russia quickly made up for lost time under the watchful eye of new South African head coach Graham Bentz.
The team is also benefitting from a full-time video analyst and new medical facilities. And Khamidova feels they will be ready to hit the ground running once they take to the field in Monaco.
“We’ve had seven tours and a good training camp with the national team plus a really good and intense sevens Championship, here in Russia. Now everything is good, we’re getting ready.”
Russia have been drawn in the same pool as Argentina, Samoa and Mexico. At the Rio 2016 repechage, they beat Samoa 47-0 and then went on to beat Argentina, equally comfortably, 34-0, in the Cup quarter-finals.
Zdrokova insists, however, that there is no danger of complacency. “We will not underestimate any opponent during the tournament. Of course, every team will show a decent level of rugby, but we’re prepared for anything.”