On the international stage, there have been three ages of New Zealand rowing.
- Until the 1920s single scullers dominated efforts.
- From the 1930s to the 1980s there was a growing obsession with the glamour event, the men’s eight.
- Since 1988 the spotlight has shone on smaller crews, which make optimal use of limited resources and attract more state funding.
Fallow years, 1920–64
Single sculler Darcy Hadfield won bronze at the Antwerp Olympic Games in 1920, and a coxless pair won silver at Los Angeles in 1932. Eights were selected for the 1928 and 1932 Olympics, but funds were insufficient to send the 1928 crew – a problem that bedevilled future overseas ventures. New Zealand’s main contribution to rowing between the wars was Tom Sullivan, who coached national squads in Germany and Austria but was interned in those countries as an enemy alien during both world wars.
In 1956 the nomination of an eight was rejected by the Olympic Committee, and the best result at Rome in 1960 was Jim Hill’s fourth in the single sculls. An Auckland businessman sponsored the eight in the early 1960s. Hopes raised by its victory in the 1963 Henley Regatta – the closest thing to a world championship that year – were dashed when it finished 11th out of 12 crews at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. In that era the selected national crews could be challenged for their place by club crews. So crews sent overseas were often not the strongest possible.
From the mid-1960s results improved as genuinely representative squads were selected after annual trials at Whanganui by a troika of Don Rowlands, Fred Strachan and coach ‘Rusty’ Robertson. New Zealand rowing announced its return to the world stage when an unheralded coxed four triumphed at Mexico City in 1968. The fancied eight succumbed to oxygen debt and dehydration, fading to fourth.
Nothing rusty about Rusty
Good coaching is vital in a sport which combines aerobic fitness, strength and technique. Russell (Rusty) Robertson was New Zealand’s national coach from 1967 to 1976 and Australia’s from 1979 to 1984. He wrote no schedules and kept no records, but ‘had a knack of being able to push the right buttons’.1 Robertson was employed by the Rothmans Sports Foundation, which ceased to operate after the Montreal Olympics.
The high point of the eights era was the victory at the Munich Olympics in 1972. As ‘true amateurs’ who raffled meat packs to fund their trips, the New Zealand oarsmen were favourites of men like International Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage, the strongly pro-amateur millionaire who presented their medals. This was New Zealand’s most successful campaign so far. The coxless four finished second and the coxed four sixth; only single sculler Murray Watkinson failed to make his final.
Following Munich, the eights’ bronze at Montreal in 1976 was seen as a failure. After winning consecutive world titles, the eights came fourth at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984, where the coxless four won gold and the coxed four bronze. Single sculler Stephanie Foster became New Zealand’s first female Olympic rower. The coxed four won another bronze at Seoul in 1988, as did single sculler Eric Verdonk and the pair of Nikki Payne and Lynley Hannen. The eights’ failure to qualify for Seoul saw them dropped as the priority crew.
Empire and Commonwealth Games
Rowing has been contested in seven Empire or Commonwealth Games, but only once since 1962. In 2013 New Zealand’s nine rowing golds ranked third, behind Australia’s 16 and England’s 14. Highlights included Don Rowlands’s gold at Vancouver in 1954, the victory at Perth in 1962 by Robertson’s Ōamaru club four, and the eight-medal haul at Edinburgh in 1986, which included two golds for Stephanie Foster.