Will the real 'Mr Billy Webb' Mahe Drysdale please stand up?

The questions about how the 39-year-old two-time Olympic gold medallist and five time Billy Webb Challenge winner is performing after over a year away from the sport will be answered on Sunday when he aims to regain the trophy amongst an elite field at least seven years or more his junior.

Despite the withdrawal of reigning world champion Robbie Manson, Drysdale will headline an elite field of around five rowers, all New Zealand representatives, at the head of an overall group of an estimated 30 rowers in various classes.

Final numbers were to be confirmed late yesterday afternoon when the entry deadline expired.


Lining up to challenge Drysdale and hoping to become only the fourth different winner of the event since 2008 are returning local hero Chris Harris, his NZ world championship winning partner John Storey, Under 23 world champion quadruple sculler Jordan Parry, and U23 men's quad silver medallist Jack O'Leary.

Could either Chris Harris or John Storey get up to take the trophy from Drysdale?
Could either Chris Harris or John Storey get up to take the trophy from Drysdale?

It was proved last year that even the smallest of breaks can have a big bearing on who takes line honours on the 5km haul north from the township and then turning to race back down to Settler's Wharf.

Drysdale was expected to battle it out with his Croatian rival Damir Martin in a rematch of their thrilling men's single sculls in Rio.

But instead, going against the current and wind on the trip up-river, both Drysdale and Martin had to play second fiddle to Germany's U23 world champion Tim Ole Naske and Tauranga's Parry, who finished 1-2, while Storey was also game, ultimately coming fifth behind the Olympic medallists.

Storey went out to an early lead, and then had a little bit of a shunt with Parry when the rowers turned at the 2.5km mark for the "downhill" run.

"It was a bit of a kerfuffle there, that's how it happens. The turn is so important [because] you can change the result of the race," Parry said at the time.

No doubt, after beating and competing with Drysdale only two months after his Olympic competition, the younger Parry and Storey will rate their chances on Sunday after Drysdale's 12 month layoff.

"They absolutely will [test him], Chris Harris as well," said organiser Kat Wade.


"No one really knows what kind of form he's in. It will be a tight field."

Jordan Parry, left, returns after coming second last year to Tim Ole Naske, centre while beating Damir Martin.
Jordan Parry, left, returns after coming second last year to Tim Ole Naske, centre while beating Damir Martin.

Last year's women's elite race winner Lucy Spoors is understood to be overseas, however runner and Rowing NZ's high performance Brooke Donoghue will be here, with Nicola Goss expected to challenge her for the crown.

Out of all the C-grade rowers last year, Ben Watkinson had the fastest time and had caught right up to the elite rowers by the finishline, and will hope for a similar performance on Sunday.

The weekend festivities begin Saturday morning with the Jury Cup Regatta, hosted by the Wanganui Rowing Association.

Crews from the Regional Performance Centres, along with North and South Island clubs and schools will race over the 2000m Aramoho course.

From Sunday at 9am, the crowd can gather at Settler's Wharf to watch the big screens, which will replay the 2016 race.

At 10.15am will be the Sprint Challenge race, which will bookend interviews by Drysdale, Harris and Storey.

The Community Eight's corporate team races will be at 10.45am, shortly followed by the Whanganui iwi waka launch and powhiri for the Billy Webb competitors.

In a nod to his legacy, sitting in the waka will be Paimararie Tapa-Gardiner and Shayden Gardiner – the great, great-great grandchildren of Webb, Whanganui's first rowing world champion.

After announcements and preparations, the main event will start at 11.30am.

Note there is a road closure in place between Market Place and Bates St between 8am–1pm, with parking available in surrounding streets.

More information can be found online at billywebbchallenge.co.nz.