Andrew Alderson

Andrew Alderson is a sport writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Rowing: Signature next on to-do list

Dick Tonks isn't worried about renewing his contract at present, but his signature shouldn't prove too elusive. Photo / Wayne Drought
Dick Tonks isn't worried about renewing his contract at present, but his signature shouldn't prove too elusive. Photo / Wayne Drought

Rowing guru Dick Tonks is uncontracted beyond the end of this year.

The issue is one of a few loose ends Rowing New Zealand wants to tidy up before their next phase of world domination that will culminate at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics.

It follows the afterglow of RNZ's three gold and two bronze medals in London. Those formed New Zealand's greatest cumulative medal haul for a sport at a Games. Rowing's 2012 vintage were second only to the 1984 canoeists' four golds in terms of success.

That Olympic success is the shop window to an empire RNZ has built since receiving regular government funding after the Athens Games.

Athletes can commit full-time knowing they can pay their bills. Some even earn lucrative sponsorship deals (like the gold medallists receiving late-model Audis as part of a deal with main RNZ sponsor Banklink).

The Olympians are backed by an elaborate feeder system. Starting with the secondary school Maadi Cup it extends to annual international competitions at junior and under-23 level.

As such, New Zealanders can expect a new generation of Olympic heroes in Rio, especially with what is likely to be an increase in government investment (the 2009-12 cycle saw rowing receive $19.2 million on the back of one gold and two bronze medals at Beijing).

Tonks' signature through to 2016 remains the jewel in the crown of the sport's forward planning. He has personally mentored five Games gold medal crews since 2000; on that basis he is now New Zealand's most successful Olympic coach. He's also helped pick other medallists as a Rowing New Zealand selector and overseen 45 Olympic or world championship medals (23 gold, eight silver, 14 bronze) since the 2004 Athens Games.

When the Herald on Sunday contacted the 61-year-old Tonks, he was completing his assigned farming chores on the 24ha property run for much of the year by his wife. Repairing fences, planting trees and dealing with a Noah's Ark of cattle, sheep, geese, pigs, ducks and "a whole load of rabbits" were the focus rather than inking any deals. Fortunately his signature shouldn't prove too elusive.

"I'm not too worried (about renewing the contract) at present. I'm trying not to think too much about rowing. At the end of four years, you tend to be quite worn out; you need a break.

"I'll be back in November. It's a longer break than normal because the Olympics tend to be earlier in the year than the world championships."

RNZ chief executive Simon Peterson says Tonks remains a key cog as head coach of their programme but they need to ensure he's not overburdened.

"The overall size of the group (26 London Olympians) and Dick coaching four of the 11 boats is something we want to look at, just to check he's comfortable. Some head coaches overseas don't personally coach any crews. We also need to recognise other coaches coming through the system. We have six coaches employed full-time and each needs to see some light at the end of a tunnel in terms of a succession plan."

A three-month rowing season in Europe can take a toll on family life and limit the desire to coach. Tonks has been grateful that (apart from 2012) his family have joined him in recent years at some point.

"My family's arrival helps break up the big training periods. They've helped make the season seem shorter. Three months away is a long time and quite a sacrifice, especially for younger coaches trying to break into the scene."

RNZ pay some of the costs to get Tonks' family overseas. Peterson says having family members join the other coaches is a contract priority leading to 2016 so they can retain their mentoring talent.

"Having a fulltime professional programme requires an enormous personal commitment so we support trying to find a way to get families there."

Like Peterson, Tonks hints he'd appreciate succession planning for coaches as much as athletes.

"We had a good squad of coaches (this campaign). For instance John Robinson took the women's pair to bronze and Calvin Ferguson had a gold and a bronze with the men's doubles (heavyweight and lightweight respectively)."

He will need that help too, to achieve what amounts to his ultimate coaching dream: a full complement of 14 Olympic class crews making finals at Rio. New Zealand had 11 crews make seven finals at London, missing out on sending the men's and women's eights and the men's lightweight four.

"On reflection we did well for a small country, finishing second behind Britain on the (rowing) medal table (Britain got nine medals; four gold, two silver, three bronze)," Tonks says.

"It's simply a case of people believing they can do it. We need to keep improving and giving opportunities to young rowers. We want a crew in every class and, if selected, we expect them to make the final and perform with distinction."

- Herald on Sunday

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