Not since the lead-up to the 2008 Olympics has New Zealand rowing had the prospect of a head-to-head to truly whet the appetite.

Back then, Rob Waddell, the 2000 Olympic gold medallist and three-time world champion, took on Mahe Drysdale, winner of the last three world titles, for the right to the single seat position at the Beijing Olympics.

Rowing New Zealand were going to keep the best-of-three duel quiet. But at 1-1, someone sensibly realised the value of publicising the final race. Crowds packed the water's edge at Lake Karapiro.

Drysdale won as Waddell had to pull up halfway down the course with a bout of the heart condition atrial fibrillation.


Now Drysdale, with two Olympic gold medals and a bronze behind him, wants the job back after taking last year off. Robbie Manson had the seat last year and dominated the two World Cup regattas before finishing fifth at the world championships after battling injury issues in the lead-up.

So it's the old warrior and the incumbent, and the pair will both race in the two World Cup regattas at Linz (June 21-24) and Lucerne (July 13-15). The rower who performs better at Lucerne gets the ticket for the world championships in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, during September 9-16. They head to Europe next week.

Manson was significantly faster earlier in the year; now the word is that while his nose is still clearly in front, the gap is narrower. No one is able to specify by how much. However, Drysdale, 11 years older at 39, is confident he's making solid progress; Manson is content where he's at.

But what about the coaches?

Manson is under the guidance of Noel Donaldson, who heads the men's programme; Drysdale is coached by Calvin Ferguson, and there's a bit of deja vu about that. Ferguson was his mentor in the lead-up to the Waddell showdown 10 years ago.

"Mahe's progressed a hell of a lot in the last month or so," Ferguson said. "It hasn't quite come through in his racing but we're playing a long game. Lucerne's the target and we need to be going fast there and we're on target for that at this stage."

Ferguson said there were no signs of the back troubles that have hindered Drysdale at times, "just the odd niggle here and there which any athletes get".

He's rowing in the mornings, cycling in the afternoon and doing weights twice a week.

The latitude in giving Drysdale extra time to get back up to speed wouldn't be accorded to any rower, both coaches pointed out. Drysdale's record demanded he be given a chance, is the prevailing view.

"We want to make sure we look after him and give him the opportunity. Whatever the outcome, we need to know he's been looked after and given opportunities. He's earned that respect," Ferguson said.

Added Donaldson: "This is a specific year to give our old champ a bit longer to come up to speed."

Ferguson believes Drysdale has it in him to win the spot, pointing out the key is in five weeks, not next week.

"Whatever happens between now and then is important - but not as important as Lucerne," he said.

So what of Manson, holder of the world's fastest sculler record, set at Lucerne last year? Donaldson likes what he's seeing.

His role is slightly different from Ferguson. His is a more over-arching position, while also coaching Manson and the men's pair of Michael Brake and Tom Murray.

There's no secret squirrel situation; either rower can check the times of his rival. It's open information between Donaldson and Ferguson, and Manson and Drysdale, not that they've bothered.

"He's been a good student in the last month. We're in a good place to race really well in Lucerne," Donaldson said of Manson.

The two men have squared off a few times but the coaches don't like to overdo that mano a mano scenario.

Donaldson said Manson had been "one of our better performers" last weekend during camp training, good enough to have won the recent opening World Cup in Belgrade.

"We know he's already got his nose where it needs to be; but we've got to get that nose going even better," he added.

Donaldson said that while he's technically in Manson's corner, from an RNZ perspective "we want the best person".

The next few weeks promise to provide a fascinating watch.