Rowing: Coach just 'trusts his eye'

By Andrew Alderson

How do you improve on a winning formula, Andrew Alderson asks new sweep coach Noel Donaldson.

Noel Donaldson is not trying to reinvent the wheel with phenomenally successful pair Hamish Bond and Eric Murray. Photo / Getty Images
Noel Donaldson is not trying to reinvent the wheel with phenomenally successful pair Hamish Bond and Eric Murray. Photo / Getty Images

Noel Donaldson is roll-ing the dice. One of rowing's most successful coaches decided he wanted a fresh challenge after masterminding some of Australia's greatest Olympic successes.

The new New Zealand sweep oar coach has vowed to take the reins of an unbeaten Olympic gold medal winning pair and improve them.

Since forming a crew in 2009, Hamish Bond and Eric Murray have won 14 straight international races (a record for a male crew).

They are one win off equalling Belarusian women's single sculler Ekaterina Karsten's record across all classes.

Their achievement shows no signs of abating in Lucerne at the final World Cup of the season next month before the world championships start on August 25 in South Korea. Much like the Evers-Swindell twins of yesteryear, other crews are giving the men's pair class a wide berth.

It seems a thankless task. The chances of throwing a yahtzee appear minimal.

If Bond and Murray win, well, it was simply a carryover from their work ethic under previous coach Dick Tonks. If they lose, Donaldson will wear it.

"I had the option of working with developmental crews in Australia or coaching Murray and Bond," he laughs. "Weighing that up, it was a pretty simple decision."

But surely there's an element of hiding-to-nothing pressure?

"I'm not trying to reinvent any wheels. You just have to be a good listener; find out what's working.

"What I've observed is two vastly different people. In fact, I think that gives the relationship its best chance for longevity. They don't live in each other's back pockets; they don't feel compelled to socialise together. One guy's building his house [Bond]; the other has a young family.

"Both express high standards in different ways. One's more theatrical [Murray], the other more circumspect. Certainly if they're able to keep this record up for eight years [to Rio], they'll be unquestionably better than anyone [previously in the pair]. Even the likes of [Sir Matthew] Pinsent and [Sir Steven] Redgrave lost the odd race together outside the Olympics."

Donaldson's relationship with Tonks will play a key role in the programme's continued success. Tonks opted to head the women's programme post-London which effectively created Donaldson's sweep oar vacancy (he also guides the men's coxless four).

"I've known Dick for years and we've always got on pretty well. He's his own person; a quiet sort of guy. He's been very welcoming but I don't expect him to open up on everything; that's not his style. I was lucky because the coaching group went to Australia for the World Cup a day earlier in March. We all had dinner together and shared a few stories over a couple of beers.

"We respect Dick for who he is and what he's done. He's his own person. We do some things together, others we don't."

The 57-year-old has little to fear from Tonks' record as mastermind of Rowing New Zealand's international successes for the best part of two decades.

Donaldson's been to six Games, coaching at four and directing the wider team at two. He coached the men's 'Oarsome Foursome' to gold at Barcelona and Atlanta, and the men's pair to bronze at Sydney. He took the men's eight to sixth in London.

The respect his athletes have for him is legendary. Oarsome Foursome stroke James Tomkins described Donaldson as the most influential person in his career, having guided him through school and to double Olympic glory.

Donaldson keeps a measured, easy-going countenance for most of the interview but this is something he is clearly chuffed about.

"If James had had another coach at school, it would've been different for me.

"When he was young, I was quite hard on him. He used to like having a good time - as in fun, not in a bad way - so I had to kick him in the arse a few times. I know all the parents of those athletes well, too.

"[1992 four crew member] Andrew Cooper surprised his wife by inviting everyone to an 'engagement party' on a beach a few hundred metres from where I live and turned it into a wedding. The other guys' parents all asked me a suitable date for their son to get married because they didn't want it to clash with rowing. You start to enjoy a rapport with whole families. My success hasn't come because of me, it's because of the quality of athletes."

So what drove Donaldson away when he was renowned as the quintessential Australian who had "green and gold blood" coursing through him? Now he's got a 9-year-old daughter who comes home from Cambridge East primary school singing God Defend New Zealand.

He claims to have found himself yelling "c'mon boys" at the telly when the New Zealand cricketers scraped home against Sri Lanka in the Champions Trophy.

"The people running the Australian programme used to work for me," Donaldson says. " People deserve the opportunity to run their own programmes and I think perhaps - they haven't said anything - there was relief for them to push me sideways to make their own names rather than me looking over their shoulder. That's my gut feel.

"They wanted me to run the development side - and they were pretty honourable about the fact they thought I could do a good job - but I felt they wanted me to do that for the remainder of my career, which is probably about two Olympic cycles. I still wanted to coach."

Donaldson learnt his trade as a coxswain and represented Australia once, in the eight at the 1979 world championships on Lake Bled in what was then Yugoslavia.

He traded motivational tirades with current RNZ high performance director Alan Cotter in their respective crews. New Zealand took silver, Australia were fourth.

"I loved it. Coxswains would always say you big bastards couldn't win without us and the rowers would say we'd go faster without you on board but you are their ears and eyes. My former stroke Brian Richardson would say to me 'tell seat four to sit still' and I'd think 'how do you know that when you can't see?'

"It got my antennae up and I gradually learnt all my crews' idiosyncrasies. Eventually you realise that's your job and you become quite astute and that carries over into coaching when you're looking to problem-solve all the time. You learn to trust your eye."

- Herald on Sunday

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