It’s nearly time for the most important regatta of the year, the World Rowing Championships. What makes this year’s championships even more special is that it offers the chance to qualify for the Rio Olympics. So whilst medals are important they will be the “icing on the cake” for those whose minds are firmly set on the waters of the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon in Rio. This is always fun to watch as those who snatch the final qualifying spots celebrate almost as much as the gold medal winners!
This year’s championships are being held on the picturesque waters of Lac d’Aiguebelette at the foot of the Epine Mountains in France. It’s a great course and last hosted the World Championships in 1997.
Qualifying spots available: 9
A huge entry of 41 scullers, all fighting for those precious 9 qualifying spots for the Rio Olympics. It’s an eclectic bunch with scullers from the likes of the Ivory Coast, Iraq, Peru, Libya and the wonderfully named Memo Memo of Indonesia.
The reigning Olympic champion, Mahe Drysdale of New Zealand, has been in imperious form since he’s been in Europe and remains unbeaten with wins at both the 2nd and 3rd World Cups, the Holland Beker and the Diamonds and Henley. It’s going to take a special performance to stop the big Kiwi from claiming his 6th World Championship title.
Last year’s champion, Ondrej Synek of the Czech Republic has had a very different season to the man he beat in Amsterdam last year. So far this season Synek has yet to win a race, indeed at both the 2nd and 3rd World Cups he didn’t even make the podium. His only medal so far this year was a silver behind Damir Martin at the European Championships. It remains to be seen if he can peak for the Worlds and claim a medal or whether his focus will purely be securing the spot for Rio.
The main challenger for Drysdale is likely to be the big Cuban, Angel Fournier Rodriguez. He didn’t race at Lucerne but was runner-up to Drysdale in Varese and won the 1st World Cup in Bled. I love watching Angel scull, he’s so laid back and relaxed but lays down a huge amount of shove in the water. I’m not sure he’ll beat Mahe, but he’ll be up there for sure.
If Synek’s been having a difficult year the same can be said of GB’s Alan Campbell. He had a truly miserable 2014 being dropped from the team after a disastrous Lucerne World Cup. That was compounded with illness and injury at the start of the 2015 season meaning he missed the GB trails and the European Championships. But, the second half of the season is looking much more promising for the Olympic bronze medallist, a 5th place in Varese was followed by an excellent bronze medal in Lucerne. A medal may just be out of his reach in Aiguebelette but it will be a major shock if he doesn’t qualify for Rio with a solid A-Final placing.
Damir Martin of Croatia looked like he might be turning the established order on its head, taking silver behind Fournier Rodriguez in Bled and following that up by beating Synek in Poznan to take the European title. But since then he’s been going backwards, a bizarre race in Varese saw him blast off the blocks before “blowing” at halfway and trailing in last in the A-Final. In Lucerne he was beaten into 4th in a tough semi by Belgium’s Hannes Obreno (whom Martin had beaten at both Varese and Poznan). It remains to be seen whether Martin can recapture the sort of form he showed at the start of the season.
Stanislau Shcharbachena of Belarus has been making quite an impact in the M1X this season. He had a bold race plan at Varese, blasting out and leading the field by clear water by the 1K mark. But he couldn’t hold off Drysdale and Fournier Rodriguez and ended up in bronze. He wasn’t on the same sort of form in Lucerne, missing out on the A-Final and ending up 2nd to Martin in the B-Final. His race tactics will be crucial in Aiguebelette, if he gets it right he could definitely feature in the A-Final, get it wrong and it’s the B-Final where only the top 3 are guaranteed an Olympic spot.
Lithuania’s Mindaugus Griskonis was, perhaps, the surprise silver medallist in Lucerne. He’s heading for his 3rd Olympics and is always “there-or-thereabouts”, European champion in 2009 and 2011, he missed out on the A-Final in 2012. Given his performances so far this season he could well be among the medal contenders.
Hannes Obreno is another sculler who looks to be peaking just at the right moment. The former lightweight (he was 18th in the LM2X in 2011) has been steadily improving throughout the season, 5th at the Europeans and 7th in Varese he had a career best placing of 4th in Lucerne. As with Shcharbachena, if he gets his race plan right he could well secure a coveted A-Final spot.
The romantic in me dearly hopes that double Olympic Champion, Olaf Tufte of Norway secures an Olympic qualifying spot. His form this season has been erratic to say the least, bronze at the Europeans (his first medal in 5 years) he withdrew from Varese and could only manage 13th in Lucerne. But, if anyone knows how to pull out a performance when it matters its Olaf.
Other scullers to watch out for are Germany’s Lars Hartig, who won silver in the LM1X last year but has stepped up to the heavyweight division this season and has finished 9th at both Varese and Lucerne.
My picks for the medals…Mahe to win, with Fournier Rodriguez taking the silver and Campbell edging out Synek for the bronze.
Qualifying spots available: 11
There are some events in World Rowing that are so dominated by one particular crew that the rest of the world is fighting for the silver. The men’s and women’s pairs and the Women’s 8 spring to mind. But, a boat fighting to join that elite group are the Sinkovic brothers in the M2X. Since moving out of the M4X at the end of 2013 they have been unbeaten as a double. In Amsterdam last year they became the first crew to break 6 minutes and have looked untouchable. They struggled with injuries at the start of the season, missing out on the Europeans and Bled. But if their competition thought this might make them vulnerable in Varese they were sadly mistaken. They never looked troubled and won by an impressive 6 seconds over the Australians. They followed this up with narrower victory over the Germans in Lucerne. But, they remain the benchmark in this event and it would be a major shock if they were beaten to gold in France.
The German’s, Marcel Hacker and Stephan Kreuger have gotten the closest of anyone to the Croatians. Hacker has one of the best pedigrees in the field and has formed a very effective partnership with Krueger (11 years his junior). They are the reigning European Champions and, as mentioned above, they took silver in Lucerne (Hacker having missed Varese through injury). I would expect the Germans to be leading the chase again in Aiguebelette.
The Australians have a lot of hope for their combination of Alex Belonogoff and James McRae. Bronze medallists in this event last year, McRae is heading for his 3rd Olympic Games and was World Champion in the 4X back in 2011. If they continue in the sort of form they have shown so far this year they will definitely be in the medal hunt.
The Italians were 3rd in Lucerne but they have made a change to their line-up. Romano Battisti was partnered by Francesco Fossi, but Fossi has swapped seats with Paolo Perino in the M4X so this combination are a bit of an unknown quantity. But Battisti is one of the most experienced competitors in this event with an Olympic silver medal to his credit so I would be surprised if this combination wasn’t faster than the one that finished 4th in Lucerne.
Part of the problem for the British, John Collins and Jon Walton, is consistency. They have been on the wrong side of a couple of very narrow verdicts which has seen them pushed into the B-Finals. When they do make the A-Finals they are always just outside the medal zone. They certainly have the potential to push the Australians and Germans if they put together their best, consistent race on the day. I’m not sure they will medal in France but a strong A-Final placing will put them in good shape for Rio.
Argentina have formed a new combination this year, with the highly experienced pairing of Rodrigo Murillo and Cristian Rosso. They have only raced once this season finishing just outside the medals in Varese. Murillo has spent the past couple of seasons in the M2- with a best placed finish of 5th at the 2nd World Cup last year. Rosso is an Olympic finalist in this event but struggled to recapture that sort of form with partner Ariel Suarez. Judging by the performance of the new combination at Varese it looks like he’s one the way back to that sort of form with Murillo. I expect an A-Final finsh from the Argentinians.
A combination that has, frankly, been a little disappointing is that of Aleksandar Aleksandrov and Boris Yotov of Azerbaijan. Aleksandrov showed huge potential in the M1X with a 5th place at the Olympics, but he hasn’t really stepped on from that result to deliver on that promise. But with Yotov still only 19 they have shown glimpses of being a strong combination with a silver medal at the 2nd World Cup last year. However this season they were a disappointing 13th in their only outing in Varese. When they get it right they are a very exciting combination, but they have to show the right level of consistency. If they show the speed they had on this lake last year they will qualify with ease, however if it’s the Varese performance they risk missing out.
Another inconsistent combination are the Bulgarians. Georgi Bozhilov and Kristian Vasilev were A-finalists last year, but so far this season their best performance has been a 5th plae at the European Championships. In Varese they were a disappointing 14th. They will need to recapture their speed of 2014 to be in with a shout of qualifying direct for Rio.
The 2013 World Champion from Norway, Kjetil Borch and Nils Jakob Hoff are another crew trying to recapture their speed. They had a disappointing 2014 finishing 10th in Amsterdam. So far this season has been a bit better, with a 4th at the Europeans, 6th in Varese and 8th at Lucerne. They will be looking to secure an A-Final spot and avoid the drama of qualifying via the B-Final.
New Zealand have a bold ambition of qualifying for all 14 Olympic events. The M2X is one in which they have a proud tradition and are, after all, the reigning Olympic champions. But, this cycle they have been trying a number of new combinations. The pairing they have settled on is that of Chris Harris and Robbie Manson. They withdrew from Varese but in Lucerne they had a reasonable regatta securing an A-Final finish. For them a similar result in Aiguebelette will be very much “job done”. My personal opinion is that they may just miss out on that A-Final spot but should get a comfortable qualifying spot at the top end of the B-Final.
Another crew to flag-up are the French, Matthieu Androdias and Hugo Boucheron. Silver medallists at the Europeans they were 9th in Lucerne.
The final crew to mention are the USA, Ben Dann and John Graves. They were 10th in Lucerne but are an experienced pairing and an Olympic qualifying spot is well within their capabilities.
My picks…Croatia for the win with Germany 2nd and Italy 3rd (just ahead of Australia).
Qualifying spots available: 11
The top end of this event is beginning to settle into a pattern. The Kiwis are, obviously, way ahead of the rest of the field with the British establishing themselves as the consistent silver medallists. But, behind these two crews it’s turning into a real bunfight. That said, Murray and Bond didn’t look as good as usual in Lucerne, but it’s the mark of a truly great crew that their worst performance is better than their oppositions best, it’s a tactic that Redgrave and Pinsent trained for and Murray and Bond are taking up that mantle.
As mentioned, the British, James Foad and Matt Langridge, have established themselves as firm silver medal favourites and the crew to push the Kiwis as hard as possible. Silver medallists last year their season was disrupted with Foad breaking his foot. But when they returned to competition at Lucerne they were on fine form.
Behind these two it’s going to be a great fight between Dutch, South Africans, Serbs, Italians, French and Australians.
The Serbians, Nenad Bedik and Milos Vasic were bronze medallists in Lucerne just half a second behind the British. They also took the bronze at the European Championships and will probably be leading the chasing pack. The Dutch, Mitchel Steenman and Roel Braas are a really interesting combination. Put together after Steenman’s usual partner, Rogier Blink was injured and to re-invigorate a jaded Braas, they were winners at Varese (in the absence of the Kiwis, British and Serbs) and followed that up with a 4th place at Lucerne. With more time together in the boat they could well become major medal contenders in Rio. Aiguebelette may be a little soon for them to medal but I don’t think they’ll be far off.
The Australians, Jack Hargreaves and Nick Wheatley, are another exciting crew. They were 5th in Lucerne and then raced to an excellent silver medal at the U23 World Championships in Plovdiv. I would expect them to qualify well for Rio but will more likely be names to watch in the Tokyo cycle.
South Africa have a long tradition in this boat class lead by Donovan Cech and Ramon Di Clemente. The baton has now been handed to David Hunt and Shaun Keeling. A new combination this season they were A-Finalists in Lucerne. Keeling was partnered by Vincent Breet in 2014 and took the bronze medal in Amsterdam. Hunt partnered Breet at U23 level in 2013 and came away with the gold medal. They are both very talented oarsmen and are forming a very effective partnership. I don’t think they will be among the medals this year but will be targeting a good A-final placing.
A crew who have struggled somewhat this season are the French. Germain Chardin and Dorian Mortelette are the Olympic silver medallists and followed that up with silver in 2013. But they moved into the M8 in 2014 in what was, ultimately, a disappointing project for the French. Now back in the M2- they won gold in a weak field in Bled and took 2nd at the Europeans. But, in Lucerne they missed out on the A-Final and found the level of competition a bit too hot.
A really intriguing combination are the Italians. They are a highly experienced duo with the great Niccolo Mornati heading for his 4th Olympic Games. His first race since the London Olympics was in the M8 at Lucerne that finished 8th. But for Aiguebelette he returns to the boat class in which he took 4th at the London Olympics. He’s joined by Vincenzo Capelli who has been racing in the Italian M8 for the past few years. He’s aiming for his 2nd Olympic Games after an 8th place in the M4- in London. As a pair they are an unknown quantity, but they are two of the most experienced members of the Italian squad and could well surprise a few of the more established boats.
A couple of outside crews to highlight are the Spaniards, Alexander Sigurbjonsson Benet and Pau Vela Maggi, 9th in Lucerne and also look out for Belarussians Dzimitry Furman and Dzianis Suravets, 9th in Varese.
My picks…New Zealand, GB, RSA
Qualifying spots available: 11
For the past 4 Olympics the British have dominated this event. But, this year they are prioritising the M8 and the 4 has struggled. The season started strongly with a win at the European championships, but since then they have been going backwards. This culminated in a disappointing 9th in Lucerne, although there are reports that Nathaniel Reilly O’Donnell was unwell during the regatta. The upshot is that he was unable to compete in internal testing for the boat and drops out to the non-Olympic class M2+. The British have made two changes to the Lucerne crew, with Stewart Innes and Mason Durant joining the boat. The priority for them will be making that top 11 and secure the qualification spot. Anything more than that will be a bonus for this new combination.
Another crew that has been forced into a change are the Australians. There were high hopes that this crew could take gold in Aiguebelette after a victory in Lucerne, but a cycling accident in training has ruled out Alex Lloyd with a broken collar-bone.
The crash also injured crew-mates Spencer Turrin and Alex Hill, although their injuries weren’t serious. Lloyd’s seat is taken by the highly experienced Josh Dunkley-Smith who moves out of the 8. This is a very strong substitution and shouldn’t have a huge impact on the speed, but it remains to be seen what the impact is.
The favourites heading into Aiguebelette are the USA. This is the priority boat for the Americans and their sole performance so far this season was a convincing win in Varese. They have three of the line-up that took the bronze medal in London – Charlie Cole, Henrik Rummel & Glen Ochal. The 4th member of the crew is Seth Weil. Weil and Rummel were part of the crew that took silver last year. This combination has the potential to dominate in Aiguebelette and carry that dominance onto Rio.
The Italians have also prioritised this boat class and have a very talented crew, stroked by Guiseppe Vicino. They took silver at both Varese and Lucerne and are quietly establishing a very strong quartet.
The M4- has definitely attracted some strong combinations, with a number of teams prioritising this class. The Canadians are one of them. They’ve a very strong and settled line-up that includes Olympian Conlin McCabe. They have underperformed in the past couple of years, but this season they finally seem to be putting the performances together with a bronze medal in Varese.
Another really exciting crew to watch are the Spanish. They finished an excellent 5th in Lucerne and I’m expecting them to take a qualifying spot via a strong B-Final finish.
The Dutch won this event back in 2013 but with the Dutch prioritising the M8 their World Championship winning 4- are all in the bigger boat. This new line-up has been performing well this season with a 5th place at the Europeans and a 4th in Lucerne. If they can secure an A-Final finish it will be a great achievement.
The Romanians won the bronze medal in Lucerne, but, like the British they have made two changes to that crew with U23 world champion Alexander-Cosmin Macovei and fellow U23 international Constantin Adam coming into the crew. It remains to be seen if these changes have improved the speed of this boat.
A couple of other interesting crews to watch are the Kiwis and South Africans. The New Zealanders were 11th in Varese and 10th in Lucerne. It’s going to be a major challenge for this young crew to qualify for Rio via this route. The same can be said for the South Africans, they have some very talented oarsmen, including Olympic lightweight champion Lawrence Ndlovu. They don’t have too many expectations for this year, they are, in their own words a “work in progress”. They failed to progress beyond the rep at Lucerne but the longer they stay together the better they will get. I’m not sure they’ll qualify for Rio at these championships but I’d expect them to get there via the Final Olympic Qualifying Regatta next year.
My picks…the USA in gold with Italy in silver and Australia in bronze.
Qualifying spots available: 8
The British won every race in 2014 except for the final of the world championships where they were just pipped by the Ukrainians. This season they have only won once, in Lucerne. But crucially they have been without their strongest sculler, Charlie Cousins, due to injury. Well, for the Worlds Charlie is back in the boat and it’s going to be really exciting to see how fast the British can go. But, crucially for the British the Ukrainians, the only crew to have beaten the full strength British quad, have the same line-up that took the title last year. The showdown between these two crews could be one of the races of the championships, if it’s anything like last year’s race it’s going to be epic. The Ukrainians won that by just 9/100ths of a second and the British will be out for revenge!
In the absence of the British and Ukrainians, it was the Germans who took gold in Lucerne following a silver (behind the British) in Varese. I’m not sure they will be making the podium in Aiguebelette but they won’t be far off.
The Australian’s do have a great shout at a medal, they haven’t medalled so far this season (finishing 6th in Lucerne and 5th in Varese) but I’ve got a feeling they will peak at the right time and may be able to sneak a bronze.
The Russian’s were somewhat surprise winners at the Europeans, beating both the Ukrainian’s and British. But, in a depleted field at Lucerne they missed out on the medals. It remains to be seen if they can recapture their form in time for Aiguebelette.
The Canadian’s have a strong line-up and were bronze medallists in Varese. They are an experienced quartet and include Olympic medallists Julien Bahain and Rob Gibson. They will be up there challenging for the medals with the likes of Australia and Germany.
The New Zealanders have found some great speed as the season draws to a conclusion. They took a well-earned silver medal behind the Germans at Lucerne, the first medal for veteran George Bridgewater since his Olympic bronze in 2008. As with the Canadians they may find the podium a step too far in Aisguebelette but I don’t expect them to be too far away from it.
My picks….GB to finally win an historic world championship gold medal with the Ukrainians in silver and Australia winning the battle for the bronze.
Qualifying spots available: 5
Qualifying for the Olympics from this event is going to be brutal. For all the other boat classes, get to the A-Final and your place is secure. Not so in the M8, only the top 5 will gain that all-important Olympic place. Miss out here and it’s off to the Final Olympic Qualifying Regatta where only the top 2 will make it through to Rio.
The British have made a big statement in this boat class. They have raced the German Olympic champions 4 times and have beaten them 3 times. The German’s only victory came in race 1…the European Championships. Since then it has been all GB. I don’t expect it to be any different in Aiguebelette. Crucially for GB at Henley they saw the return of the talismanic Stan Louloudis. His return to the boat means a huge amount to the crew and they know they have the measure of the Germans. The British have set out their stall to win three consecutive world championships and the Olympics in a single cycle, only the Germans have achieved this so far (winning in 2009-11 and then London 2012). The race at Aiguebelette is a big step towards that ambition. For their part the Germans will be desperate to spoil the party and head into the Olympic year as the reigning world championships. There are always fireworks watching these two boat race and Aiguebelette is going to be epic.
Behind these two crews it’s going to be very tight. The young New Zealand crew showed just what potential they have by taking the bronze medal in Lucerne just edging out the Dutch (which, as mentioned above is the no.1 priority boat for the Netherlands).
The USA’s sole appearance in Europe this season was at Varese which saw them take the 3rd spot behind the Anglo-German battle and just 1 second ahead of the Kiwis. I’m excited to see the battle behind the top two and I think these two boats will be right up there.
The Polish are always there or thereabouts as well. A long established crew they will be looking to improve on the 6th place finish they had at Lucerne….a repeat of that in Aiguebelette will not see them qualify for Rio.
The Russians gave the rest of the world a bit of a surprise last year with a silver medal at Lucerne, but they couldn’t follow this up at the Worlds and finished 6th. But what Lucerne showed was that Mike Spracklen’s crew have the baseline speed, if they put together a good regatta they could be serious challengers for Olympic qualification. So far this season they have only raced once, at the European Championships where they took bronze behind the Germans and British.
The Australians have been forced into making a substitution with perhaps their strongest oarsman, Josh Dunkley-Smith moving to the M4- (see above). They’ve struggled a little so far this season, well beaten by the British at Henley they were off the pace in Lucerne and finished 5th. I think they may well struggle to make the A-Final.
The French have also had a bit of a torrid time in the M8. They have prioritised this boat but the rumours are it’s not a happy ship and the disunity is showing in the performances. 4th in a very weakened field in Bled, they missed out on the A-Final at both Varese and Lucerne. It will require a significant turnaround for them to make the A-Final on home water, and an even bigger one to take an Olympic qualifying spot.
Watch out also for the young Romanian crew who have some talented U23’s on board and also for the Italians.
My picks….the British to get one over on the Germans again, with the US just pipping the Kiwis. My money is on the Dutch to claim the 5th Olympic qualifying spot.
That’s it for the heavyweight men, coming up tomorrow is the open-weight women’s preview.
Ps. You may have noticed I’m concentrating on the Olympic class events, this is due to time pressures, I’ll preview the non-Olympic events if I get time.