Rowing: Eights take giant leap forward

If you want a brief glimpse into what is making Rowing New Zealand's programme the envy of the sport, listen to Aucklander Kayla Pratt.

She was a member of the New Zealand eight who won silver on the final day at the world championships in Aiguebelette, France on Sunday night.

It was a stunning achievement considering when the eight put their oars in the water for the first time last April, they were something of an unknown quantity.

RNZ want to be represented in all 14 classes at the Olympic regatta in Rio next year. The question was whether there were sufficient women of the quality needed for the biggest boat.

The answer roared out on Sunday night, when the Rebecca Scown-stroked eight beat all bar the outstanding American crew. Jubilation mixed with relief will last a while before training starts again in about three weeks. Then it's back to work.

"It's going to be a very interesting year," Pratt, bronze medal winner at the 2013 worlds in the coxless pair with Scown, said.

"The boat has qualified but definitely none of us will be thinking that our seat is qualified, especially in the Rowing New Zealand programme. One thing you can't do is think your seat is safe. It will be a hard summer."

RNZ are well known for taking a hard-headed position on its crews. There's no beg-yer-pardons. Slacken off, get too cosy and you'll be gone. Rowers must prove, and re-prove, they deserve their place.

Before heading for Europe, their coach Dave Thompson pegged down what he was looking for from the eight.

"Culture and character in an eight is two-thirds of the battle. If you haven't got them all working together it just doesn't fire," he said.

This group did just that, buoyed by winning a silver at the Lucerne World Cup in July, and simply grew from there. They had to make the top five in the six-boat final to qualify for Rio. But they didn't just sneak in, they shouted their credentials as they effectively announced they will be a significant presence at the Olympic regatta.

Consider New Zealand's never had an Olympic women's eight; haven't had a men's eight since 1984.

These are heady days for the classic class. New Zealand's steadily increasing success since the start of the millennium has been built around smaller boats.

However RNZ recognised that with the burgeoning talent coming through, they had to have more boats to cater for the best athletes, or they'd risk losing them to other sports.

Funding is in place and the next year promises to be fascinating.

The men's eight, effectively the winners of the last two world under-23 eights titles, were also a revelation.

As with the women, they only needed to avoid finishing last to qualify for the Olympics, but rather than opting for a conservative approach, they went all out to make the podium, and fell just .13s short, pipped by the Dutch at the line for third.

"We're not even disappointed we got edged out," said Brook Robertson, a recipient of a New Zealand Herald Future Stars of Sport award last year.

"This is only our first year in the elite cycle, we only have an average age of 22. Give us another couple of years and we've got something special going on here, I believe."

They're a confident lot and can't wait for next year to start.

"It's going to be a big summer. We're raring to get back. We've qualified for the Olympics and we want a medal there next year."

Rowing success
•New Zealand won a total of nine medals at the world champs - five gold, three silver and a bronze - with two of the golds coming in the non-Olympic lightweight single sculls classes.
•New Zealand will field a women's eight at the Rio next year for the first time at an Olympic Games. The men's eight return to the Games for the first time since 1984.
•Kerri Gowler and Grace Prendergast walked away with two silver medals for their success in both the coxless pair and, 24 hours later, the women's eight.
•Nine crews have been qualified for Rio, with five still to get across the line at last-chance regattas in Europe in May - the women's single scull and quad, men's lightweight double scull, four and quad.

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