Robbie Manson made a sharp return to rowing while Olympic great Mahe Drysdale appeared to be off the pace in the high-profile single scull heats at the Christmas Regatta on Lake Karapiro.

An intriguing final looms involving the male heavy hitters of New Zealand rowing on Sunday after Manson won his heat but didn't set the fastest overall time.

The 28-year-old is racing for the first time since an injury-plagued tilt at the world championships in Florida two months ago left him without a medal.

Manson, who otherwise dominated on the international stage last year, looked sharp in winning the third and final heat on Saturday in 7 minutes 10.29 seconds.


It was nearly five seconds faster than two-time Olympic champion Mahe Drysdale, who was well beaten in his heat and only qualified for the eight-man final courtesy of being one of the faster third-placegetters.

Drysdale, 39, took more than a year off following his Rio Olympic triumph and has admitted he is rusty as he begins a bid to compete at the 2020 Games in Tokyo.

Heading home Drysdale in the quickest times of the day were two New Zealand representatives in bigger boats - James Lassche and Chris Harris. Lightweight sculler Lassche was a surprise fastest qualifier in 7:07.33.

The first heat was won by John Storey, who won world championship double sculls gold in Florida with Harris.