The year 2016, and the week before the biggest-ever Irish Rowing Championships regatta – with 917 crews – is a fitting time to pay tribute to the heights Irish rowers have reached and to confront the challenges faced by the present crop.
Twenty five years ago, in 1991, Niall O'Toole won gold for Ireland at the World Rowing Championships, 20 years ago the Ireland lightweight four finished fourth at the Olympic Games and 15 years ago Ireland took three golds at the World Championships. In club competition, Neptune this year celebrate the 30th anniversary of a Ladies Plate win at Henley and the 20th of their Thames Cup win.
There have been lean years this century, but the international system has been retooled and faces into Rio 2016 with three crews and realistic hopes of a medal.
For clubs, Henley 2016 was a low point. No Irish crew was seeded and only one, Trinity in the Prince Albert, survived the first round.
What to do? Look at Henley. In race after race successful crews came from super clubs or programmes where the best talent is drawn from a number of clubs and worked on over time. There is a need for a centre or centres of excellence. The future could see a crew formed from, say, UCD, NUIG and UCC representing the National University of Ireland, of which these are constituent colleges. UCD has announced a sports scholarship for postgraduate students, a positive move.
Rowers leave the junior ranks at 18 (or younger) and do not come back. One reason is that the next step is unclear or too big a jump. The preference here is for a radical solution – an under-23 grade. This would mirror the international system. It would also allow for the pruning of the grades between junior and senior.