Priorities to change at Rowing New Zealand if they are to qualify a men's or women's eight for the Rio de Janeiro Olympics.

Last week's Regatta of Death defeat for the men's eight continues a 28-year drought since they qualified for an Olympic Games. The women have never qualified in that discipline since the International Olympic Committee granted them the right to row in 1976.

Put in context, the eight in international rowing is the blue riband event.

The results of Olympic finals since the turn of the century indicate how heavyweight rowing nations prioritise their resources for the event. The women's gold medallists have been Romania (twice) and the United States; Britain, the United States and Canada have won the men's.


Other top rowing nations such as Australia, Germany and the Netherlands regularly feature among the finalists ... but not New Zealand.

New Zealand's success with 40 Olympic or world championship medals (20 gold, 8 silver and 12 bronze) stretching back to the 2004 Athens Games cannot be ignored. The country will also send its largest rowing team (26 athletes) to a Games, based on 11 crews qualifying a spot in 14 possible events. Eight of those 11 crews finished on the podium at last year's world championships in Slovenia.

Such statistics make fine reading, completely justifying Sport NZ's $15.5 million investment - the most of any sport - over the four-year London Olympic cycle.

However, the lack of any tangible results in the eights leaves a void.

This year's decision to persevere with a men's eight was admirable but needs to be sustained through to the 2016 Games. The time has come for New Zealand to take the plunge, perhaps sacrificing smaller boats rather than using the eights as an overflow of a wealth of talent in the system.

Such a plan is a risk which devours considerable funding. Ten is the minimum number of passports (coxswain and coach included) required whenever they compete.

Tony Hurt, the stroke of New Zealand's only gold medal-winning eight in 1972, says building a core base of talent was how that crew developed from 1966.

"That was the first time [1966] the New Zealand eight made a world championship final [finishing sixth at the second world championships in Bled]. I had just started rowing and remember the buzz when those guys came back and spoke to us about their achievement."


The Kiwi eight progressed to fourth at the 1968 Olympics where the coxed four also won New Zealand's first rowing gold.

"That progression kept the flame alive among the hardcore rowers. There was no stopping us from 1970," Hurt says.

The core crew went on to take gold at the European Championships in 1971 before Olympic glory at Munich. A New Zealand eight, also stroked by Hurt, took bronze at the Montreal Games in 1976.

The New Zealand men finished 10th in 2011 before a decision was made to send them this year to trial for the last remaining spot. Hurt wants to see RNZ commit to a plan from here.

"Once they've done that, then they've got to build the crew. It's no good just taking the best from the already well-established small boats. They need to spend time identifying the strongest bodies, including a couple of big guys for the middle of the boat.

"They could work on a trickle-down effect by prioritising the eight over the [coxless] four, which has been a notoriously hard event to win."


Hurt could well have an ally in RNZ head coach Dick Tonks. Tonks took silver in the coxless four on the same day as the eight's gold at the Munich Games. His coaching blueprint has been a success for the best part of two decades and London shapes as his crowning glory, with the prospect of a record medal haul.

However, Tonks is not one to be easily satisfied. He suggested as much to the Herald on Sunday at the Olympic selection announcement in March when questioned about his ultimate coaching ambition.

"Our expectations keep extending," he said. "Three silver medals at the world championships in 2001 was a case of 'wow', then four golds in 2005 was another 'wow' but last year we got four golds and a host of other medals [one silver and four bronze] to almost top the world rankings. But we're still not satisfied.

"The culture has built slowly through winning. Anyone who joins this programme has to believe they're good enough. That means they don't sit on the start line, look across at the Germans, the English or the Americans and think 'aw hell'. Those other crews have to look at our black singlets and know they're going to be under threat."

Chances are Tonks won't really believe he's reached his zenith until sets of eight male and female oars surge down an Olympic course in those black singlets.