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Rowing dream team could boost NZ eight

New Zealand's Hamish Bond and Eric Murray. Photo / John Cowpland / photosport.
New Zealand's Hamish Bond and Eric Murray. Photo / John Cowpland / photosport.

Double Olympic champion rower Eric Murray believes New Zealand could have three gold medallists in their men's eight at the Tokyo Games.

Murray said he, Hamish Bond and Mahe Drysdale are considering the move, having dominated their respective disciplines for years.

Murray is likely to take a break next year - which will see him sacrifice his high performance funding - but expects to return in 2018.

Bond and Drysdale are undecided on their immediate futures.

"As far as finishing up goes, I don't think so," Murray told Newstalk ZB's Tony Veitch.

"We'll see how the break goes. We've done everything in the pair. We're motivated by challenges. The only thing left to do in New Zealand rowing is the eight. It's about asking whether we feel we could make it go well, or would it be better without us?

"We wouldn't get the same flexibility as we've had in the pair. Hamish might get his wife pregnant and she mightn't want him to go away all the time, and I've got a young boy."

Bond, who competes in cycling's Tour of Southland cycle next month, was more circumspect.

"That's news to me [regarding the eight], sounds like typical Eric," he joked, in keeping with the pair's famed contrasting personas.

"The eight has an appeal as a blue riband event, but it depends on a lot of factors and needs a buy-in from so many different areas.

"There have been no proper discussions and no official decisions. We've got until November to make a decision about returning, so that gives me a bit of time and I'm focused on getting in shape for the tour."

Moving into the single sculls, a discipline in which Bond has beaten Drysdale at national championship level, is another option.

"I'm under no illusion about what a challenge that would be. Mahe has done incredibly well internationally for years.

"Whatever it is, I've got to be motivated and excited by the challenge. That's the single biggest driver in coming back. I won't do it justice otherwise. If I entertain rowing again, it'll more than likely be for a four-year plan."

Drysdale downplayed the prospect of entering an eight given he's had to nurse numerous injuries in recent years, something easier to counter by cross-training out of the single boat.

"I have no idea what the future holds yet," he told the Herald on Sunday. "Nothing is off the table but, if I continue, it's unlikely my body would survive in the eight."

Bond and Murray were undefeated across 69 races, 24 international regattas and eight seasons in the pair. No one has completed more in rowing's history. They won two Olympic golds and six world championships in the discipline, in addition to their 2007 coxless four and 2014 coxed pair titles.

Drysdale won his second Olympic gold by less than the width of bow ball over Croatian Damir Martin at Rio in the closest final in Games history. He became New Zealand's oldest Olympic champion at 37 years, eight months and 25 days.

On a facile level, adding the trio to an eight would seem a dream come true for Rowing New Zealand. Winning an eights gold is the ultimate in the sport and the addition of three Olympic champions might help.

The flipside is that the incumbents, a crew which has largely been together since under-23 level, reached the Rio final. They have every chance to advance that ranking by 2020, given the Rowing New Zealand board has guaranteed investment in the class until Tokyo.

Murray, Bond and Drysdale would not be automatic selections - they'd have to trial like anyone else - and it might risk diluting the performances of the smaller boat classes, the area of the sport in which New Zealand has excelled this century. Pursuing a medal in the eight might sacrifice gongs in other boats, thus reducing the overall taxpayer high performance investment.

Each of the trio has competed in the coxless four at Olympic level in Athens (Murray and Drysdale) and Beijing (Murray and Bond) without medal success.

"We might not make it go faster for the selectors," Murray said.

"They might say 'you guys are not suited to it', then we might have to go back to the pair [and the single], so nothing is discounted yet. At the moment we'll shelve it for a year, then make decisions. Hamish could find he has potential as a cyclist."

Rowing New Zealand chief executive Simon Peterson urged caution: "We've got a wonderful group of young athletes in the eight who are coming through making good, steady progress. We're investing in them until 2020. If Eric, Hamish and Mahe want to jump in there we won't be stopping them, but we've got a small boat [platform] as well."

Age and life circumstances are factors for the trio to consider, but they haven't necessarily wearied rowers in the past.

Bond would be 34, Murray 38 and Drysdale 41 in Tokyo. Brit Sir Steven Redgrave won gold as a 38-year-old in the coxless four at Sydney, compatriot Greg Searle earned bronze in the eight at London as a 40-year-old, and Norwegian Olaf Tufte - a former single sculls rival of Drysdale - was also 40 when he took bronze in the double sculls at Rio.

Murray suggested 2008 pair bronze medallist and 2009 Oxford boat race champion George Bridgewater, who is 33, was another worthy of eights consideration.

- Herald on Sunday

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