row2k Features
Olaf too Tufte for NZ boys
December 8, 2008
Richard Gee

A hundred years ago - and more - a sculling match race was a major occasion. Match racing 2008-style came back with a bang with the Billy Webb Centennial sculling challenge in Wanganui in December, and it was easy to see why sculling 'in the good old days' must have been something very special indeed.

Thousands came out during a rowing weekend that combined the annual Jury Cup regatta with the clash of the titans - Olympic champion Olaf Tufte, triple world champion Mahé Drysdale and surprise wild card Hamish Bond. As the helicopter tracked the start it was almost as though Webb himself - Wanganui's favourite son and an 'ace' at match racing from a different age - was looking down and beaming with approval.

The three scullers were quickly out of the block and it was apparent that Tufte hadn't come down to New Zealand just to holiday with best pal Drysdale. "He went out of the blocks like it was a 2,000 metre race," said the Olympic bronze medallist. "You know in racing like this that you really don't want to get behind and I was behind pretty much from the very start."

Thus it was as the three warriors raced through the first 1,000 metres, Tufte held a length or so lead from Drysdale, with Bond - rating much lower - slipping backwards and unable to sustain the good pace set by the leading two.

Drysdale and Tufte's friendship off the water was well documented in the build up to the race, but on the water the rivalry is fierce and Tufte was far from comfortable with his slender lead, commenting: "The first two kilometres felt good, but then I was just ahead of the big man and I could tell he wanted to eat me up!"

With corners and the line into and out of them crucial in river racing, the two scrapped all the way through the last two thirds of the race. On more than one occasion it looked as though Drysdale's legendary 'big push' would see him sneak by the Norwegian and assume control of the ideal line, but Tufte fought him off every time.

With about 500 metres to go, the two approached the very last bend and Mahe made a huge push for the inside line - and it was a big enough push to get even rowing head coach Dick Tonks excited in the commentator's box. Sadly for the spectators - itching for a home win - it was not enough and Mahe had shot his bolt, dropping back to a three length margin as the two raced through the final bridge and across the finish line to a huge round of applause. Tufte enjoyed the moment and no doubt relished the $5,000 prize, a unique reward in the modern sculling era.

Bond was some way behind the sculling giants, but showed by making the final that he has kept himself in superb shape since the Olympic Games and intends to be a major part of the New Zealand rowing programme in 2009 and beyond.

The big winners on the day, however, were the spectators and the race organisers. The spectators were treated to a great show of world class watermanship and a glimpse of rowing's great history and the organisers - a thoroughly professional team who had worked to some very tight deadlines - delivered a superb event that everyone agreed should become a regular part of the rowing calendar.

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