It wasn't supposed to be this way. In the grand scheme, Mahe Drysdale, winner of the last four world single sculling titles, would be at the peak of his powers as he strove for another crown to add to his glistening record on home waters when the world championships reach their conclusion at Lake Karapiro next weekend.

So much for best-laid plans, and all that.

The tall, lean Aucklander who has bestrode the sculling world colossus-like for the bulk of the past six years, has been cut down by an injury-plagued year.

His back has played up, a slight bulge in a disc and a loss of fluid which has compacted the back seriously undermining his ambitions to slice down the 2000m course at the front of a quality field next Saturday afternoon.

He might still win it, but the whiff of the inevitable which has accompanied so much of his success on the big stages is missing.

If he does triumph, it will rank among the great rowing achievements.

In itself that won't be foreign ground for the 31-year-old. At the Beijing Olympics two years ago, Drysdale was struck by a debilitating bug. His row for third in that final - and he led going into the final 500m - was remarkable. He collapsed after the finish line and had to be helped from his boat.

Even allowing for what he calls "by far the worst year I've had", Drysdale reckoned he would still have been close to optimum going into the heats on Sunday had it not been for a further setback at the end of September, coinciding with the big wet hitting New Zealand.

"I'd got home from Europe and had two months' really good training. Things were going well, everything was on track, but then it just flared up again," he said. "It's a strange place to be for me because I'm really unsure exactly how things are going to go. I'd feel in previous years like I'd got to the point where I would be sitting here going 'all I have to do now is race well, I've done all the preparation'."

Not this time. He's been able to do very little speed work so he's hoping he can extract every bit of value out of the coming week, and rely on a couple of other elements to come into play.

"In most crews, in the situation I'm in now, you'd be praying to make the A final, but I've got loftier goals than that.

"I know it doesn't just desert you overnight, what I've built up over nine years. There is a glimmer of hope that if I can just keep my back right, keep things together and pull something special out on the day it could still happen for me."

Since taking over the single seat in 2005, Drysdale has forged a place among the country's most celebrated rowers.

At that year's world champs in Gifu, Japan, he was among the four New Zealand gold medal winners in that fabulous 45 minutes. From there he became THE guy the others had to catch.

And it was a case of catch him if you can, and they couldn't, until Beijing, and again this year.

Others are now fancied, including Czech Republic hotshot Ondrej Synek, who has won all three World Cups and the European championships this year, Britain's Alan Campbell and double Olympic champion Olaf Tufte.

It says something for Drysdale's attitude that he'll be on the line on Sunday. The easy option would have been to admit preparations had gone awry and put away his oars before setting his sights on the London Olympics in 2012.

But instead he'll be out there giving it his best shot. He wants to be part of an event which could do plenty for the sport in New Zealand.

"A lot of people I've spoken to remember as little boys or girls going to the 1978 champs [at Lake Karapiro] and how great that was. They still talk about it. Hopefully young kids will come and watch and think 'that's something I want to do'."

Drysdale says his back is still quite sore and a little bit stiff, but manageable.

"In other years I've always had a bit of a buffer knowing if I have a good race I'd probably win, whereas this year I need the race of my life, really.

"I know what I'm capable of but this year it's about making the best of a bad situation. It's more luck than management and that's not the way I want to leave it."

So the clock is ticking. The odds are against him, but Drysdale talked of an intangible element.

It doesn't have a name, but you know what he's getting at.

"It's still inside me somewhere. It's just a matter of finding it and pulling it out within the next 10 days."