The Meridian South Island Championships at Lake Ruataniwha, Twizel, last weekend held more than just mainland bragging rights for southern rowers pre-national championships.
The regatta, on Saturday and Sunday, was the window of opportunity for pre-elite rowers to stake a claim for the elite, lightweight, under-23 and under-19 New Zealand team trials in March.
New Zealand Rowing left that window wide open, opting not to send any Summer Squad athletes to the regatta for comparison against the best remaining athletes in the South Island.
This opening was grasped with both hands by Southland athletes, with Mark O'Connor winning an open pairs heat on Saturday with Southern Regional Performance Centre (Southern RPC) partner Jared Glue.
They beat the more fancied former New Zealand representatives Ian Seymour and Sean O'Neill, of Wairau and Central RPC.
With O'Neill making known his intentions to continue through to the Rio Olympics in 2016, the loss to O'Connor and Glue and scratching out of the A-Final will mean O'Neill's task of gaining a New Zealand trial will depend on his 2000m ergometer (erg) test score rather than the automatic trial opportunity that winning the title provides O'Connor and Glue.
With O'Connor still within the under-23 age-group qualification range, his challenge will be to maintain the form that saw he and Glue win the pair in a time of 6min 43.14sec in slight tailwind conditions.
This time is comparable to those witnessed two weekends ago at Lake Karapiro, when Jade Uru narrowly fended off Olympic bronze medallist Peter Taylor by five hundredths of a second in the pair final on a lake which is known for its fast times.
Two other Southland under-23 hopefuls, rowing for Southern RPC, Lisa Owen and Kristen Froude, made close-run statements in their open single and pair events, respectively.
Placing within plus or minus 10 per cent of the winning crew in these events at this small boat New Zealand trial regatta may see the selectors invite the southern duo to trial for their respective age-group teams.
Although the regatta maintains this elite and pre-elite performance focus for Rowing New Zealand, for Southland clubs the focus was firmly on whether their age-group crew performances merit attendance at the remaining away regattas this season.
It was also the last hit-out at Lake Ruataniwha for those club crews attending the Banklink Nationals Championships in mid-February.
Most prominent in their claim to reach higher honours was Wakatipu Rowing Club's novice men's squad of Ben Luke, George Dennison, Latham Jones, Reid Long, Logan Boyd, Will Saxon, Josh Tell, Oliver Jolly and coxswain Henry Mathews in the novice eight and George Dennison, Latham Jones, Reid Long, Logan Boyd, and repeat coxswain Mathews, in the novice four, taking away two gold medals from these South Island championships.
The group have been steadily widening their lead on nearest rivals Avon and will take the South Island champions moniker with them into the national championships.
Wakatipu also picked up another gold medal in the under-19 women's coxed quad, with Jacqui Bell, Georgia Bewley, Jordan Murphy, Monique Lynes and Lucy Dickson (cox) beating home Christchurch Girls' High School and Waihopai Rowing Club's Amy Jenkins, Katie Moffat, Penny Barnsdale and Ella Wilkins by seven seconds.
Invercargill Rowing Club's Rowan Haveron and Dylan Milford managed to bring home the club's one gold medal in the boys under-16 double after a wave of illness rippled through its under-16 squad. The group endured through the weekend where Haveron and Milford, along with Thomas Elder, Scott Radka, Blake Green, Brodie Crooks, Scott Pulley, Riley Chilton and cox Tate Mulligan ground out a second place in the under-16 eight also
The Invercargill Girls under-16 eight wound it up through the last 500m of their A final to round out the medal tally for the club with a bronze after the disappointment of missing out on A-finals in some of their other age-group events. Novices Hannah Lilley, Charlotte Whitaker, Nakita Tupoutoa and Moira MacDonald were consistent with new cox Laura Murphy at the rudder to place fifth in the women's novice quad.
Thus it was Waihopai Rowing Club's under-16 girls who were the surprise packages in the under-16 age-group in winning a complete set of medals. Michaela Townshend took a determined third in the under-16 single, combined with Kerri-Ann Sinclair, Georgia Smith and Rianna Maxwell to place second in the girls under-16 quad and then Sinclair and Smith rounded out the day with a hard-fought win in the girls under-16 double.
Coach Russell Everett set the group targets to achieve to warrant attendance at the major secondary schools regattas this season.
With these promising results, and some more hard work, the group will likely head to the Maadi Cup National Secondary Schools regatta at Lake Karapiro in March. Waihopai's wider senior squad came away with two gold medals, in the girls U19 four and women's club double, with Georgia Yaxley part of both of these crews as well as the silver lined open eight.
The club totalled five silver and four bronze; with two of these medals coming from an intra-club battle in the women's U19 double between eventual second placegetters Olivia MacDonald and Annabel Ronald, and the third-home crew of Amy Jenkins and Penny Barnsdale.
The Boys under-19 crew of Scott Jones, Guy Redpath, Ben McLeod, Nick Shields and cox Laura McMillan came home in third in the under-19 quad with Redpath later rattling home to second place in the U19 single, after being just fifth at the 500-metres-to-go mark.
The Riverton Rowing Club signalled their return to Lake Ruataniwha and championship regattas with three B-final berths in novice events, with the crew of Sam Wallace, James Anderson, Hunter Dawson, Robbie Grove and cox Kate Black placing first in the B-final and their counterparts, Jack Mennie, Jacob Brown, Caine Anderson, Nic Cleaver and cox Clair Verhaegh following not far behind in third. Christina Grove and Kelly Shearing also placed third in their novice women's double B-final.
The Riverton Masters were the mainstays of their over-age-group events at the regatta, coming home with all of the club's silverware: one gold, three silver and four bronze medals.
Dunstan Rowing Club also performed well at club and age-group level, taking away three gold and two silver medals along with two gold medals in Master's events.
Two of the age-group gold medals came from Lucy Geddes and Sydney Cook in the novice women's double and in combination with Eirlys Bond and Ella Galletly in the girls under-15 quad, with cox Jack Bruce.
The third gold came from men's club double of Simon Smith and Doug Cryer.
The South Island Championships finals on Sunday were held in perfect conditions, and needed to be after the last 20 races on Saturday were thwarted by a strong westerly in the last hour of the race programme.
Some 108 races were held on Sunday, which meant racing continued on until mid-afternoon: though the regatta was kept to time throughout the day by the numerous umpires, boat marshals, starters and coaches all helping to ensure crews were organised and ready to race.
Southland Rowing officials in attendance at Lake Ruataniwha, all of whom are volunteers, will be in charge again this weekend at the ILT Southland Championships on the Oreti River from 8am.
- The Southland Times