Finally the Olympic season is upon us. The first regatta in any new season is exciting, but when that season will culminate in an Olympic Games it makes it doubly exciting (well, it does to me at any rate). The 2016 World Cup season kicks off this weekend at the beautiful Lago di Varese, one hour north of Milan.
Over the past few years the 1st World Cup in any season has suffered somewhat from the number and quality of entries. This year is a mixed bag. Overall the number of entries (240) is good for this part of the season, but the antipodean’s are missing and the European “Superpowers” of Great Britain and Germany have sent limited teams and the French are missing entirely.
So, with that in mind I’ll launch into the first of my 2016 race previews….
The largest field in the regatta including scullers from Benin, Cote D’Ivorie, Libya and Zimbabwe. But there are three names that standout of the crowd. Cuba’s Angel Fournier Rodriguez, Croatia’s Damir Martin and Belarusian Stanislaus Shcharbachenia. Rodriguez, the heaviest man in the field – tipping the scales at over 100kg, will start as the nominal favourite. He medalled in every regatta he’s entered this Olympiad with the exception of the Aiguebelette World Championships last year where he was never in the hunt and trailed in last in the A-Final.
Finishing one place ahead of the Cuban in Aiguebelette was Croatia’s Damir Martin. He’s a mercurial sculler, he blasted into the M1X field at the start of 2015 taking silver at the first World Cup and winning the European Championships. But after that he went backwards finishing 6th in Varese, 7th in Lucerne before getting back into the A-Final in Aiguebelette. On his day he can challenge the best in the world, but his performances have been inconsistent and some of his race plans have been a little “unorthodox”.
The third sculler to watch is Stanislau Shcharbarchenia of Belarus. He’s another sculler that blows hot and cold. On his day he’s capable of challenging for the medals (winning bronze at Varese last year and finishing 4th at the Europeans in 2014) but similarly he’s capable of what can only be described as mediocre performances – 13th at Lucerne in 2014 and 8th the following year. At Aiguebelette he just missed out on an A-Final spot and ended by winning the B-Final ahead of GB’s Alan Campbell.
Behind these three the other sculler’s to watch out for are Poland’s Natan Wegrzycki-Szymczyk (who he secured the final direct qualifying berth by finishing 9th in Aiguebelette) and Belgium’s Hannes Obreno. Obreno would’ve been disappointed with his 12th place finish at the World Championships after a strong season which saw him finish 4th in Lucerne and 5th at the European Championships. Also watch out for a triumvirate of Swiss scullers including Nico Stahlberg and Roman Roeoesli from the 2015 5th placed M4X.
The Ivory Coast’s Riccardo Bouehi is worth a mention as the youngest man in the field at just 16. He made his international debut at last year’s World Championships finishing last, but how many people can say they raced at a World Championships a month after your 16th birthday! Good luck to him.
So my picks….always difficult for the first race of the season, but I think Rodriguez’s class will be too much for the rest of the field with Martin in silver and Obreno 3rd.
Angel Fournier Rodriguez Photo: Zimbio.com
This promises one of the most interesting and exciting match-ups of the regatta. The imperious Sinkovic brothers of Croatia have dominated this event since moving from the quad in 2014 and are unbeaten in 19 starts. But, what’s really exciting is the first appearance of the new Norwegian double, Kjetil Borch and Olaf Tufte. Tufte finished 4th in the single last year, qualifying the boat for Rio, but has been moved into the M2X as the Norwegian coaches think they stand a better chance of getting a medal in the crew boat than the single. But, the challenge for Tufte and Borch is to actually qualify the boat next month. If they achieve this it will mean Tufte’s 6th Olympic Games. I’m really excited to see how this new combination gets on as they have a huge amount of firepower and going up against the mighty Croatian’s will be a great first test. They will also face strong opposition from the top Italian double of Francesco Fossi and Romano Battisti, world silver medallists in 2014.
The Azerbaijan double of Boris Yotov and Aleksander Aleksandrov are a combination that could do something good this year. They have yet to really fire and make the most of their undoubted talents, they were 7th in the world last year and I have a suspicion that they could be the dark horses in 2016.
My picks…Croatia for a comfortable gold ahead of the Norwegians and Italians.
Overshadowing this event are, of course, the unbeaten Kiwis. Last year the British, James Foad and Matt Langridge firmly established themselves as the “best of the rest” and they looked odds on to continue that run into 2016. But, Foad has suffered a serious back injury which has ruled him out of Rio and may well have ended his international career. His partner is now installed in the crucial 7 seat of the British 8. So, who will take over the mantle as “best of the rest” and give the Kiwis a run for their money?
Don’t discount the new British pairing of Alan Sinclair and Stewart Innes, but they aren’t racing in Varese. Instead GB have two pairs racing, one of which I would expect to be the Olympic spares – Nathaniel Reilly O’Donnell and Matt Tarrant. These two are the reigning M2+ world champions and will provide a stern test for the rest of the field (and a good indicator for the selected GB Olympic pair).
However the favourites will probably be the Serbians, Nenad Bedik and Milos Vasic, they took bronze in each of their three races last year culminating at the World Championships in Aiguebelette. Chasing them will be the Dutch, Mitchel Steenam and Roel Braas. They are a pair with a tremendous amount of potential and won the 2nd World Cup last year but they finished just out of the medals in Aiguebelette. If they click and deliver to their ability they could well take gold in Varese.
The South Africans have a slightly different line up to 2015 with Lawrence Brittain coming in to partner Shaun Keeling. Brittain’s appearance in the M2- is a remarkable tale of resilience having battled back from lymph-node cancer. He joins Shaun Keeling who finished 7th in this event in Aiguebelette with David Hunt.
My picks…it’s going to be a really interesting battle, I reckon Noddy and Tarrant could spring a few surprises and send a big message back to Jurgen Grobler and take the gold with the Serbians in 2nd and the Dutch in 3rd.
The Italian M4- World Champions
This is going to be a really fascinating contest, with the reigning world champions from Italy up against the no.1 USA men’s boat. The USA were many people’s favourites for the world championships last year but were struck down with illness during the regatta and could only manage 7th. The showdown with the Italians is going to be very telling. For their part the Italians have a strong crew and will be keen to show they are deserved world champions. They raced successfully at Piediluco Regatta at the beginning of April defeating the Canadians on both days. The Canadians have a massively strong and experienced crew that has made the A-final at the past two World Championships, but has only picked up two World Cup bronze medals since coming together in 2013.
The Dutch have the same line-up that finished 6th last year and are trying to find a similar combination to emulate their World Championship winning crew of 2013.
The Italians have a 2nd crew entered stroked by Vincenzo Abbagnale who, as far as I was aware, was actually suspended for missing three drug tests. I’ve not been able to find any evidence that he is not under suspension, but clearly, if his entry has been accepted then he has been cleared by FISA to race.
The Russians have half of their 2015 M8 now racing in the M4- which looks to be a much stronger line up than that which finished 10th last year. They don’t have an especially strong record in this boat class so it’ll be interesting to see how the 2016 version gets on.
What’s going to be really interesting is to see the Swiss lightweight world champions taking on the big boys. It’s a gutsy move by the Swiss and they could well surprise a few of the bigger crews. My only concern is that if they do too well (say finish 4th or 5th) then that adds weight to the current debate that the LM4- is no longer a suitable Olympic class boat.
My picks…USA for the gold, Italy silver and Canada 3rd
A small field considering three of the crews are from the home nation. The favourites will probably be the Estonians; Andrei Jamsa, Allar Raja, Tonu Endrekson and Kaspar Taimsoo. They took a superb bronze in Aiguebelette and Lucerne. The main challenge to the Estonians will be from the Canadians. They had a disappointing 2015, but the crew of Julien Bahain, Robert Gibson, Pascal Lussier and Will Dean have made a good start to their European campaign with victory over the Italians on both days at Piediluco. They will be looking to establish themselves ahead of the Final Olympic qualifying regatta. Another interesting crew that are preparing to face qualification are the Norwegians, with a crew that contains former M2X World Champion Nils Jakob Hoff. He joins half the crew that struggled to 14th last year, but with Hoff on board it gives a lot more firepower.
My picks…Estonia must fancy their chances for gold with the Canadians in silver and the Norweigans in third.
6 crews. The two powerhouses of men’s 8’s rowing, Great Britain and Germany are missing from Varese, they will go head-to-head for the first time in 2016 at the European Championships. In their absence the Dutch will start as favourites following their bronze medal last year. They have kept faith with the same line up from 2015 and will be seeing Varese as a good way to open their 2016 campaign. The Russians took the final qualifying spot last year and have shown sparks of speed to worry the top boats from Germany and Great Britain. But the crew entered for Varese is a completely different line up and looks to be a development boat.
The Poles were bitterly disappointed to miss out on qualifying and they must start as one of the favourites to grab one of the two remaining places at the FOQR next month. They have kept faith with the same line up that has been racing in this boat for a number of years. At their best they can challenge for a medal, but, like the Russians they are inconsistent. The Italians have made two changes from the crew that agonisingly just missed qualifying direct last year finishing 6th.
My picks….The Dutch in gold with the Italians 2nd and the Poles in 3rd.
A relatively small field for this event with no fewer than 4 Italian scullers entered. The pick of the home athletes are Pietro Ruta and Andrea Micheletti. They are doubling up in the LM2X, the event in which they finished 5th in the world last year. It remains to be seen if the actually compete in the singles as well. But, the favourite for the event is likely to be Slovenia’s Rajko Hrvat, World silver medallist in the LM1X last year he is likely to be too fast for the rest of the field, especially those who are also racing in the LM2X. .
My picks…..Hrvat for gold followed by two Italians…Ruta and Miani.
10 pairs including 3 from the host nation. No standout form amongst the entries, but possibly just edging their bows into the pre-race favourites slot are the no.1 Italian boat of Giorgio Tuccinardi and Guido Gravina. They were in the Italian LM8 that won a silver medal in 2014. The 2nd Italian boat of Giovanni Ficarra and Paolo Di Girolamo are both U23 world champions and will be looking to stretch their senior compatriots. Watch out for the young Turkish crew, Mert Kaan Kartel and Fatih Unsal, 5th in the LM8 last year they were U23 LM2- silver medallists as well and will be medal contenders in Varese.
My picks…Italy for a 1,2 with the Turks in bronze
In the absence of the French world champions it’ll be the 2014 world champions from South Africa who start as favourites. James Thompson and John Smith are holders of the world’s best time, but finished outside of the medals in Aiguebelette last year. But, crucially, none of the three crews that beat them in France are racing in Varese. The British have sent their 2nd LM2X of Jamie Kirkwood and Zak Lee-Green. They are an exciting young duo and could well give the South Africans a run for their money. Also racing in Varese are the Danish Olympic Champions, Rasmus Quits and Mads Rasmussen. They took a break from rowing after winning in London and made a stuttering return to competition last year, only managing 15th. But with financial backing secure and internal selection battles won, they are focussed on gaining qualification to defend their title. The first step towards that will be a good performance in the first World Cup.
But, they won’t have an easy task, The medallists from 2015 may be missing but a lot of the other qualified crews are competing. As mentioned above, the Italians, Ruta and Micheletti are doubling up and they finished 5th last year, just behind the South Africans. The Poles, Artur Mikolajczewski and Milosz Jankowski won the B-Final in Aiguebelette after taking bronze at the Bled World Cup. The Portugese, Pedro Fraga and Nuno Mendes have been racing the double together for years and had their standout performance in London where they finished 5th. They’ve not shown that sort of speed this Olympiad and have struggled within injuries, only managing 17th last year. If they can recapture the sort of form they showed in London they could well snatch a qualifying berth. Another Rio bound double are the Austrian twins, Paul and Bernhard Sieber. They finished 4th at the 1st World Cup in 2015 and ended the season with a 9th place at the World Championships.
The final crew to call out are the Irish O’Donovan brothers, Paul and Gary, also Rio bound. They had a great finish to the European Championships, making the A-Final and secured the final Olympic qualifying spot finishing 11th in at the Worlds.
My picks…It’s hard to look anywhere than the 2014 World Champions from South Africa for the gold. Italy in silver and the young British double in 3rd.
17 crews. A big field but one that is dominated by the reigning World Champions from Switzerland. The quartet of Simon Neipmann, Mario Gyr, Simon Schuerch & Lucas Tramer were one of the crews of the season last year and have shaken up the event which had been dominated by the Kiwis and Danes over the past few years.
The Dutch will probably be their main challengers, they have made one change to the crew that finished 5th last year with 2015 world junior champion Bart Roovers coming in for Timothee Heijbrock.
The USA could well prove to be contesting for the medals, they have made one change to the crew that took the final Olympic qualifying spot last year with Miami’s Robin Prendes replacing Will Daly.
Other crews to watch out for are the Chinese with an unchanged line up from 2015 that finished just 6/10ths of a second behind the USA. I’m also really excited to see the Irish crew race based around the 7th place LM2- from last year ; Mark O’Donovan and Shane O’Driscoll joined by U23 internationals Lloyd Seaman and Liam Keane.
My picks….it’ll be a major shock if the Swiss don’t win but it should be a good battle behind them with the Dutch coming in ahead of a fierce battle between the two Italian crews.