Hamish Bond, Eric Murray - the untouchables
For three years Hamish Bond and Eric Murray have been unbeatable in rowing's men's pair. Marc Hinton charts a remarkable journey that looks destined to end in London glory.
The first thing that strikes you about New Zealand rowing's perfect pair is how comfortable they are in their skin.
The second is how close they are, sitting there in their Karapiro boatshed finishing one another's sentences like an old married couple.
Truth be told, one begets the other when it comes to the finest rowers on the planet, aka Hamish Bond and Eric Murray. There's a serenity and confidence about them (if only success sat so easily on the shoulders of our All Blacks); yet they are so poised because they've spent much of the past four years in one another's pockets becoming rowing's equivalent of smoke on the water.
They've worked incredibly hard to get to where they are today, so be damned if they're not going to enjoy it just a little bit. They understand there are no guarantees in sport, but they're also aware it's going to take something pretty special to topple them.
There's also a bit of an "odd couple" element to them. Murray, 30, is the big unit with an even bigger motor. He calls it how he sees it and comes across as a pretty uncomplicated beast. He's the power behind the pair. The lean, mean Bond, 26, is a more studious type, more reserved in character and analytical in approach. A business studies graduate, he's the smooth rhythm in this terrific tandem.
Whatever the dynamic, it works. Since 2008, when they jumped out of the Kiwi coxless four who finished a disappointing seventh overall in Beijing, "Bondy" and Murray have been untouchable on the water. They have yet to taste defeat as a pair over this entire Olympic cycle – an unmatched feat in their sport.
So good are they that the crack British duo of Andy Triggs-Hodge and Peter Reed elected to flee the two-man boat and race for gold in the four in London. That symbolic raising of the white flag from a Pommy pair beaten into submission was seen as the last piece of resistance going up in smoke.
"They are a complete package, a once-in-a-generation pair," says Olympic-bound double sculler Nathan Cohen. "They're exceptional athletes, physiologically among the best in world rowing. Then you've got the mental toughness and determination and drive to train.
"Generally people who are naturally gifted don't have the training ethic because they don't have to. But these guys train harder than anyone else, race harder than anyone else and are better athletes than anyone else. It makes them very hard to beat."
As you might be able to tell, Bond and Murray are revered among the Cambridge-based national squad, the bulk of whom left on Friday to begin their Olympic buildup in Europe. Mahe Drysdale may be very much the elder statesman of this special group, but it's the pair they're all seeking to emulate.
When a combination clicks like this, it's a beautiful thing, says Drysdale. "You could put the two best rowers in the world in the same boat and it might not work. Bondy has an amazing rhythm, and you need that in a boat. It's what makes you efficient. Then you need to put in a guy who can complement him.
"They're quite different people, and that helps because when things aren't going so well they think in different ways. As soon as they were put in the boat together they were going quick. They've come in and attacked it and set new standards. That's been good for the whole squad."
Single-sculler Emma Twigg attributes their emergence as the most dominant crew in the sport down to hard work, perseverance and talent. "They've been in the system a long time and had their losses. They're champions because of how they've approached their careers and how they row. They row a beautiful stroke, very efficient, and physiologically they're specimens."
It's clear a special, er, bond has been forged, and it shines through as they wander over and sit down for a chat at Rowing New Zealand's plush Karapiro base.
"We've got the same focus, the same goal, the same work ethic," says Murray. "We work harder than anyone else in the team, and that's shown by results on and off the water. Plus we just work well together." He calls it a "business relationship", but when you proffer that it's more like a marriage, given their time together, he admits his wife teases him about that.
People often ask why Murray, longer-limbed and 10kg heavier, is in the bow, not the stroke seat as would be the rowing norm. He just smiles at that. "That's like asking how the universe started. We know what makes the boat go fast and that's why we get it together."
I ask Bond what makes Murray such an ideal back half of the donkey. Murray gestures to his impressive guns. "No brain, no pain," shoots back Bond, ever alert. Murray laughs heartily. "I know Eric will train as hard as I will, or probably harder," adds Bond. "Probably the biggest talent to have in rowing is the ability to work." That's more important than you might think. In rowing, training ethos can make or break a crew.
"If you get people who feel as though they're training harder than someone else or pulling more of the load you can get on the slippery slope pretty fast," he says. "We're pretty even in performance and output, and that makes it easy to train hard. There's no hierarchy."
The genesis of their combination makes an interesting tale. They were both part of the 2007 world champion four (along with Carl Meyer and James Dallinger) who headed to Beijing the following year with high hopes. But as they would discover, finding and keeping that rhythm in a boat is no easy task.
"We won in 2007, but we didn't know what made us go fast," recalls Murray. "The next year we were always searching for that feeling and rhythm again but, because we didn't know what it was, we were sort of stabbing in the dark." Adds Bond: "It wasn't for lack of trying, but we were probably just trying the wrong way."
Out of that painful lesson came not only valuable experience, but a realisation. They'd often train in the pair and would go head-to-head against the top duo of George Bridgewater and Nathan Cohen, who won bronze in Beijing.
"I don't think we ever lost to George and Nathan," shrugged Bond. "We always knew we had the potential."
So in the wash-up of Beijing, Bond said to Murray: "How about it?" Murray had figured on some time out, but realised it was one of those opportunities you can't pass up. When Dick Tonks agreed to coach them, the new partnership was sealed.
And it delivered in style. They won their very first world cup in Munich (delivering the first of many body blows to Triggs-Hodge and Reed) and have not been beaten since, claiming three world championship and seven world cup golds between 2009-11.
Not only that, they have crushed their would-be rivals. In last year's world cup in Hamburg they won by 14 seconds; against a better field in Lucerne they had a seven-second margin. In rowing terms that's a length of the straight stuff. Remember the twins won their gold in Beijing by 0.01s.
At the world champs in Bled last year they sizzled down the 2000m in 6:14.77 – the closest they've come to the "perfect" race. It was also to be the last they would see of those brittle Brits, their two-second defeat that day being the final straw.
Which brings us to the mindset of a pair who give all appearances of being untouchable. Near gold medal certainties. Murray admits it's been stressful at times. "At the start we were always motivated to win, then for a while we were motivated not to lose. But now we've switched it around. In 2010 we learnt a few things from such a close race here at Karapiro [in the world champs]. You've just got to take the bull by the horns every time."
But they largely keep it as uncomplicated as possible. Racing, they say, is easier from in front. They both talk about finally figuring out the secret of making a boat go fast. Plus they'd much rather go through the pain in training than on race day. "There's pressure in this situation, but I think there's more pressure on the opposition," says Murray. "Everyone's trying to catch us because we've set the benchmarks."
Adds Bond: "The biggest thing is belief that you can win. It's pretty hard for them [their rivals] to believe they can win if no one's won over the last three years."
After a couple of world cup sharpeners in Lucerne (next week) and Munich, it will be on to London where only one outcome will be acceptable. The beauty of this poised and polished pair is that they understand this as much as they get that what they've done in the past three years is all part of the journey there.
"If we put in as much preparation as we have in the past – and we're probably doing more – then if we get beaten by a crew that's better than us, you've just got to take that on the chin," says Murray.
"If we don't win we'll be deemed a failure," says Bond. "That's the reality, and you've got to be man enough to accept that. You only ask for a fair contest, though we'll try and make it unfair, I guess, by out-training and out-preparing everyone else."
That's the gist of this perfect pair. They've done the work, and set the standard. There is no reason they should start over-thinking this thing now. Bond talks about going into "autopilot" in London, and Murray nods in affirmation.
"Rowing is largely about comfort," says Bond. "If you're feeling comfortable you generally go fast."
Two cool customers. One golden outcome.
Sunday Star Times