2016 preview – part 1: the heavyweight men

Well, it’s now less than 200 days until the start of the Rio Olympics so it’s high time I turned my attention to what 2016 may bring. So here we go….

single scull race
Last year was all about Ondrej Synek v Mahe Drysdale and I see no change in 2016. Drysdale’s 2016 campaign has gotten off to a stuttering start with all the controversy over his coach, Dick Tonks, and New Zealand Rowing. It looks as though Rob Waddell has managed to broker a compromise arrangement where Tonks will continue to coach Drysdale (and the Kiwi W2X) but not be able to use any of the official facilities.
With that hiatus out of the way Mahe can re-focus on the job in hand. Synek on the other hand had had no such tribulation. He posted a strong erg score of 5:41.6 on the 8th Jan so is clearly in good shape.

I think these two are going to be the clear favourites to be battling out for the top honours in Rio. But behind them it’s going to be very exciting. Cuba’s Angel Fournier Rodriguez is perhaps the strongest challenger despite a relatively disappointing Worlds in 2015. He’s got an interesting diversion in May when he leads a Cuban M8 at the Windermere Cup in Seattle against the University of Washington and Stanford….quite whether this is the best preparation for the World Cup season is debatable but it’ll be exciting to watch a Cuban 8 racing on US water.
Just outside the medals in Aiguebelette was the “old man” himself….Olaf Tufte….qualifying for his 6th Olympics. But….and it’s quite a big but….he’s had his own problems during the off season. An inflamed bursa resulted in an urgent operation although the prognosis is that it won’t keep Tufte out of his single for too long. What might keep him out the single however are the Norwegian Rowing Federation. The Powers That Be in Norway feel that the M2X is more likely to yield medals than the single. But, Norway have not yet qualified the 2X – 2010 world champions Kjetil Borch and Nils Jakob Hoff missed out on direct qualification in Aiguebelette. There is now an expectation that, despite qualifying the single, Tufte will move to the M2X with the aim of qualifying the boat at the Final Olympic Qualifying Regatta.

Another old stager in the single who may be relinquishing his Olympic 1X berth is GB’s Alan Campbell. Alan has struggled to recapture the form that won him a medal in London. Although he achieved Olympic qualification in 2015, he missed out on the “A”-final. He’s said recently that his aim is just to be on the plane to Rio, he’s less concerned about what boat that will be in. This is quite a shift from his stance in the run-up to London where he was pretty much the “single or nothing”. Whilst nothing is finalised there are some rumours that Campbell will form a new M2X with GB’s wunderkind Angus Groom. Whether there is any truth to this rumour remains to be seen. If true then it’ll be interesting to see who gets the single spot for GB – it could come down to a race off between the current M2X crew mates Jonny Walton and John Collins and possibly Jack Beaumont as well.
A sculler who has been quietly going about his business putting together some impressive results is Lithuania’s Mindaugas Griskonis. 3rd in Aigubelette he’s going to be a big challenger for the minor medals.
The question is….will anyone else step up in Rio…Damir Martin of Croatia has been inconsistent but is definitely speedy when he gets it right, Poland’s Natan Wegrzycki-Szymczyk has just turned 21 and grabbed the final qualifying spot in France. Rio may be a bit soon for him to challenge for the medals but he could be a big force to reckon with in Tokyo and in 2024.

It’s going to take an event of major significance to stop the Croatian Sinkovic brothers from continuing their dominance of this event. Since moving into the double in 2014 they have only been beaten once….and that was their first heat in the boat class at the 2nd World Cup in 2014 (they went on to win the rep, semi and final and have been unbeaten ever since). Their time of 5:59,7 in the semi –final in 2015 set a new benchmark for the event.
But, behind the Croatians things get very interesting. I’ve already mentioned how the Norwegians think that a medal is up for grabs in this event and the British may well also put their single sculler into the crew boat as well. The Germans have already gone that way with the mercurial Marcel Hacker joining Stephan Krueger in 2015. Following a disrupted season they took a strong 4th at the Worlds. If they both stay healthy they could well bring Hacker his 2nd Olympic medal to crown off a senior career that stretches back to 1997.

At the other end of the age spectrum is Lithuania’s Rolandas Mascinskas. The 23 year old took the silver last year along with crewmate Saulius Ritter. They are a talented duo but the question is can they peak at the right moment and hold off some highly experienced doubles. The Kiwis have started to build a strong reputation in this boat class. After an up-and-down season in 2015 Robbie Manson and Chris Harris took a well-deserved bronze in Aiguebelette. It remains to be seen if this line-up remains heading into 2016 and whether they can achieve the consistent performances to challenge for the medals.

The Australians are another crew that have been a little inconsistent – James Mcrae and Alex Belonogoff medalled at every event in 2014 and 2015 with the exception of the World Championships. If they get it right they could well be the main challengers for the silver. But what is most intriguing in this event is what the Norwegians and British do (as mentioned above). The Norwegian’s have 3 hugely talented scullers and the single spot is already assured. But, they were devastated to miss out on automatic qualification for Rio. The 2010 World Champions could well be split up with Tufte stepping in to qualify the boat. The Norwegians are clearly confident of their speed for them to prioritise the double over the single.

It’s a slightly different story for the British. The question for Sir David Tanner and Jurgen Grobler is how to make best use of the veteran Alan Campbell and the new rising star, Angus Groom. As I’ve already mentioned, there is talk of these two forming a new double. If that happens it could well have medal potential. The current incumbents; Collins and Walton, have shown sparks of good speed but are consistently at the tail end of the A-Final or top of the B-Final. If a Campbell/Groom combination can push the British up a few places to be in the medal mix then it’s a risk worth taking.

My advice is to go to the bank, withdraw all your money and put it on the Kiwis to win gold in Rio (if you can find a bookie to take the bet). They are probably the hottest favourites for gold of any event at the Rio Games. If the Kiwis lose it would perhaps be a sporting upset to rival that of Japan’s victory over the Springboks at the 2015 Rugby World Cup.

Their biggest challengers in 2015 were the British, James Foad and Matt Langridge. But, with Foad likely to miss the Rio Games following back surgery this week it has thrown open the battle for the lesser medals. This presents a dilemma for the British, whether to try and form a new pair with Matt Langridge and one other, or to pull Langridge into the 8’s group and promote the World Champion coxed pair of Reilly-O’Donnell and Tarrant into the Olympic class. There are some big decisions for the British team management to make.

The Dutch, Roel Braas and Mitchel Steenman should a lot of promise last year, and although somewhat inconsistent they ended the year in style taking 4th place. But, it looks possible that the Dutch may prioritise the M4- with Steenman, Blink and Braas among the likely line-up. However, there decision rests on what the British may decide to do….if they go for the M4- it may persuade the Dutch to stick with the pair. In my opinion a combination of Steenman/Braas or Blink has a strong chance of taking a medal in the M2-. Bronze medallists last year were the Serbians, Milos Vasic and Nenad Bedik. Having spent 2014 languishing in the B finals they stepped up in 2015 to play 3rd fiddle behind the Kiwis and British.

The Italians may also get in on the act, with the highly experienced Niccolo Mornati returning to the boat class in which he took 4th at the London Olympics. He was joined in 2015 by Vincenzo Capelli and they took 5th in Aiguebelette. If they stay as a pairing they could be in the mix this year.
The French Olympic silver medallists had a very disappointing 2015. Germain Chardin and Dorian Mortelette were part of a somewhat unhappy French M8 in 2014 and moved back to their preferred boat class in 2015. A good start to the season saw them take gold in Bled and silver at the Europeans. But from then on they started to go backwards, 7th in Lucerne was followed by 8th in Aiguebelette. If they can recapture their form of 2012 they could challenge, but it’s a big ask.

Heading into 2015 the British looked about to step up and dominate the event, having just missed out on gold in 2014. But injury to Charlie Cousins meant they had a disrupted season using both Jack Beaumont and Angus Groom as subs. Cousins returned for the world championships but they were off the pace taking 4th place. But, crucially it secured the qualification for Rio. I expect the line-up of the British crew to remain the same with Charlie Cousins, Pete Lambert, Sam Townsend and Graeme Thomas, and if the four of them remain fit and healthy they will be one of the favourites for gold.

The German world champions will be the main threats to the British achieving an historic gold in Rio. If their line-up remains the same as in 2015 they will have 3 defending champions on-board – Karl Schulze, Philipp Wende & Lauritz Schoof. In 2012 they only won one race, but it was the one that mattered – the Olympic final. They have the skills and the firepower to repeat the feat in 2016.

One of the most exciting crews in 2015 were the young Swiss quartet. The two-time U23 world champions they are a wonderful crew to watch and are getting better every year. With another year under their belts they could be a real challenge for a medal in Rio.

What was interesting about worlds in 2015 was who didn’t make the final. The 2014 World Champions, Ukraine (the only crew to beat the British) finished 8th just squeaking into the final qualifying spot. The Final Olympic Qualifying Regatta is going to be brutal in this event with just 2 spots available. There are some “big” crews who are going to be duking it out for those two spots….the Kiwis (with Olympic medallist George Bridgewater on-board), the Canadians (with Julien Bahain and Will Dean), the European champions from Russia (who could only manage a woeful 13th in Aiguebelette). There are also high hopes that the US could produce a crew capable of taking a top two at the FOQR – personally I think that’s going to be a big ask.

GB M4- Euros
Now this is where things get really interesting. It’s all about “what will the British do?” Will they prioritise the M8 or the M4-? I’m of the belief that the 4- will be the priority boat and it’ll be based pretty much on the crew from 2014; Alex Gregory, Mo Sbihi and George Nash….but, who will fill the stroke seat. Andy Hodge is back following an extended absence due to illness but whether he is back to the form that made him the “best stroke in the world” remains to be seen. The British could well put Stan Louloudis in the hot seat making a formidable line-up. There are arguments for and against the 4- being the priority boat, Some argue that Grobler will continue with the M8 being the no.1 boat as it’s the only event he’s yet to win Olympic gold. There is also the argument that the British want to match what the Germans achieved in the London Olympiad and win 3 world championship golds followed by Olympic gold. In favour of the 4- is that, compared to the M8, the 4- is a relatively less-competitive event. A top GB 4- would be the read-hot favourites for Rio. The other argument is more prosaic…the M4- is THE Olympic boat for GB. They have won gold at the last four Olympic Games and that is a run they will be keen to continue. There is also the sense of DNA that runs through the GB Olympic 4’s….Pinsent & Cracknell raced in 2000 and 2004 with Steve Williams who in turn raced with Andy Hodge and Pete Reed in 2012….Hodge & Reed raced with Alex Gregory in 2012…if GB do run with the 4- in 2016 then I would expect Gregory (and possibly Hodge) to make the boat and that DNA link will continue.

In 2015 it looked as though it was going to be a showdown between the top US and Australian boats. But, the US (favourites going into Aiguebelette following victory in Varese), suffered from illness during the regatta and slipped to 7th. The Australians also suffered a setback when Alex Lloyd was injured in a cycling accident. Josh Dunkley-Smith was drafted in and they ended up with silver. The question now is what will the Australians line-up be in 2016? The Aussie M8 missed qualification and sorely missed J D-S’s power. Will Australia keep him in the 4- and push for a medal or will he return to the M8 and try and help the Aussies qualify??

With a certain amount of carnage going on behind them it was the Italians who profited taking the gold in 2015. Whilst the Italians have a strong pedigree in this boat class I can’t help thinking that they were the ones who made the most of the situation in 2015 and may be a “one-hit wonder” (a bit like the Dutch in 2013).

As mentioned above, the Dutch are considering prioritising the M4- but will wait to see what the British do…personally I think they will make the M2- their priority. I’m also interested to see how the Canadians get on in 2016. I’ve talked in other blogs about how they have underperformed, given the quality of the athletes they have in their boat. Finally in 2015 they started to put together the sort of results expected from a crew of their calibre. They could well be peaking at just the right time…this could be 2004 all over again!

Finally in this section…the Men’s 8….
As with the M4- a lot of the attention is focussed on what do the British do. 2014 proved that GB have the strength in depth to win both the 4 and 8, and whilst the Olympics is a different matter there is a strong belief that the British men have the strength in depth to pull it off. If we assume that Sbihi, Nash, Gregory and Louloudis become the 4- then who would fill their shoes? With Hodge coming back and Langridge without a pairs partner that’s two replacements to start with. The 2015 GB 4- also had a strong end to the season taking the bronze medal. Two of them could well fill the final seats….competition is going to be intense.
One thing is for certain though and that’s that the Germans will prioritise the 8. Their battles with the British over the past 3 years have been epic and part of me wants to see the top two boats from these countries going at it again in Rio. But whoever the British select the Germans will be wary and desperate to defend their Olympic title. But, it’s not just about the Brits v the Germans. The Dutch love this boat as well and surprised a few people by taking the bronze in Aiguebelette, whether they can repeat the feat in Rio is doubtful. More likely to step up are the young Kiwi crew. U23 world champions in 2014 they are growing in confidence with every race and will believe they can not only take a medal, but will be able to take the scalps of the top two boats. It’s been a long time since New Zealand have had a really strong M8 and “students” of International rowing like me have fond memories of the great Kiwi crews of the late 70’s. With only 5 qualification spots available in Aiguebelette it was always going to be a brutal contest. With just 2 spots remaining at the FOQR it’s going to get even more brutal in 2016. For the US and the Australians it’s a major blow to their self-esteem to find their men’s 8’s facing the last chance saloon. The Poles have had a settled line-up for years and have consistently finished in the A-finals and been up in the medal contests, but in France they slipped up and only managed 8th….if they miss out on the Olympics it will be a major body blow. The French also pinned a lot of their hopes on their 8 but came up short on home water. When these crews line-up in Lucerne for final qualifying a lot of athletes will have their Olympic dreams shattered.
That’s it for part 1….next up in part 2 will be the openweight women’s events….more British intrigue with the question; who will partner Katherine Grainger……


2 thoughts on “2016 preview – part 1: the heavyweight men

  1. Pingback: When is winning an Olympic Gold Never Enough? Perhaps when you are British? | RowGlobal

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