Rowing: Big year ahead for young Kiwi eight
The appearance of the New Zealand men's eight at the World Cup in Sydney tomorrow could be a glimpse into the Olympic future.
A young Kiwi eight is part of the small Rowing New Zealand team contesting the three-day regatta that's a shadow of usual World Cup events.
Very few of the elite northern hemisphere crews are attending the regatta for the second year in succession in Sydney, ensuring all six New Zealand crews will be in medal contention.
But what the men's eight wants to do most is show on debut at elite senior level that it's not only competitive, but hugely promising.
It already gave a hint of that promise when winning the world under-23 championship gold medal last year. While part of this year's goals is to repeat that triumph, shining at the senior level would indicate the combination of Stephen Jones, Brook Robertson, Alex Kennedy, Joe Wright, Finn Howard, Shaun Kirkham, Isaac Grainger, Tom Murray and coxswain Caleb Shepherd is a realistic option for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
Rowing NZ has selected the eight to contest two World Cup regattas this year - Sydney and the third event in Lucerne, Switzerland, in July. They will then attempt to defend their under-23 crown in Italy - and could then be given a shot at the world champs in Amsterdam in August.
Kirkham believes the eight is ready for the jump to senior level.
"I'm reasonably confident - we're continually pushing forward, getting better, getting faster on the rowing machine," he said.
"Our whole crew has a good chemistry - we're pushing each other constantly on the water and in the gym. I can see this crew going on to the higher level.
"We've got a great opportunity training in New Zealand with the other elite crews, with Olympic and world champions, to measure ourselves. We try to get as close to them as possible, and then on our best days maybe knock them off the top - that's the goal." Kirkham said a few seating changes has seen the eight improve throughout the home summer season, while the crew members have also spent time training in a four and a pair, as they will represent New Zealand in those events in Sydney as well.
"We've been doing at least a couple of sessions a week in the four, because we really want to nail that as well," Kirkham said.
"We've got quite a tidy four that shows a lot of potential, so we're looking forward to racing that as well. It'll be a bit of an unknown because we've never really raced a four at that level before, but it's still pretty exciting.
"In Sydney, there's only an hour and a half between the fours race and the eights race - so it's hard to know what's going to happen there.
"The eight is still definitely the priority leading up to under-23 world champs again - that's the big event for us. Having Sydney and Lucerne World Cup events for practice is a real opportunity.
"We really want to perform well at those elite regattas to put our foot in the door, and show the older guys we can keep up with them.
"I'm not too sure about the possibility of going to the elite world champs at this stage - I don't know if there's a chance of that, but we'll just do the best we can and hope we get a good result at three big regattas."
The eight will face only two crews from Australia and one from the Netherlands, but the four should find the pace on throughout their heat tomorrow. The Netherlands are the current world champs, and hosts Australia were runners-up behind the Dutch in South Korea last year.
Rowing NZ team for Sydney: Women: Single scull - Emma Twigg; Coxless pair - Rebecca Scown, Louise Trappitt; Lightweight double scull - Lucy Strack, Julia Edward.
Men: Eight - Stephen Jones, Brook Robertson, Alex Kennedy, Joe Wright, Finn Howard, Shaun Kirkham, Isaac Grainger, Tom Murray, Caleb Shepherd (coxswain); Coxless four - Jones, Robertson, Kirkham, Grainger; Coxless pair - Kennedy, Murray.