Tonks vs Rowing New Zealand: Was it always going to end like this?

5:22 pm on 17 December 2015

Sports Call - Dick Tonks says he always knew it would end like this. Rowing New Zealand probably did too.

New Zealand rowing coach Dick Tonks.

Dick Tonks (pictured) has worked with many of New Zealand's best rowers. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Tonks has enjoyed unparalleled success as a coach at Olympic and world championship level not only with Mahe Drysdale but the likes of Caroline and Georgina Evers-Swindell, Hamish Bond and Eric Murray, and Rob Waddell.

But the 64-year-old has always done things his own, unbending way, and in many respects that's probably why he's been named Halberg Coach of the Year five times - more than any other coach in any sporting code. It can take single-mindedness to achieve great things.

A few telling comments about Tonks came from one of his previous charges, former world champion Phillippa Hogan-Baker.

"Dick's not perfect but you don't give a man like him an ultimatum," she said.

"You don't change a person like Dick Tonks. Many have tried. They've all failed."

Rowing coach Dick Tonks during a morning of training on Lake Karapiro in 2010.

The rowing coach keeps a close eye on training at Lake Karapiro in 2010. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Should there be surprise in the rowing fraternity about the way things have unfolded? No.

The fact Tonks has survived so long is possibly the biggest surprise. It's a shame it's had to descend into rancour and name-calling, but then Tonks has always simply said what's on his mind.

His role has been scaled back over the past few years. He used to be the national coach but that role no longer exists.

"They want to get rid of me. They've been trying for ages. They've downgraded me right through, they've undermined me, cut me off, it's just been ongoing," Tonks said yesterday.

"This was just a chance to get rid of me. They don't like people who stand up (to them). They want to control everything. They want to control people. They're a petty-minded little management team."

He cited the departure of other coaches such as Ian Wright, who now heads up Switzerland's coaching programme - "they mistreated him and he shot through".

He also criticised Rowing New Zealand's decision to drop junior selector Dave Lindstrom, who quit as a coach at Christchurch's St Bede's College in April, unhappy with the school disciplining two pupils who had breached airport security on their way to the Maadi Cup competition.

Tonks couldn't see himself coaching Drysdale at the Rio Olympics now, he said.

"I always knew it would end and rowing coaches have notoriously been turned over... I've managed to survive since 1994, so I've done all right."

He hasn't been involved in negotiations to try and resolve the matter; it has been Drysdale's manager trying to salvage things. The coach himself has decided the writing is on the wall.

Tonks said he had coached overseas before, and Rowing New Zealand hadn't had a problem with him.

Whether that is the case or not, it does seem odd that Tonks would think work with international competitors would go down well when over $5 million a year of public funding goes into the sport.

He might feel his integrity is being called into question but, whatever the facts, perception is key in all of this. It's simply not a good look for the sport. Sure, the Chinese won't be in the same league as New Zealand come Rio next year - but what about four years' time in Tokyo?

Rowing is one of the jewels in the crown of High Performance Sport New Zealand's targeted funding approach, and giving the opposition a leg-up hardly seems a smart move.

Dick Tonks at the 2012 London Olympics.

Tonks in action at the 2012 London Olympics. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Whatever the rights and wrongs, and the differences of opinion between Rowing New Zealand and Tonks, reigning Olympic and world champion Mahe Drysdale appears to be the victim.

Drysdale said today he was optimistic a solution had been found to the stand-off.

Under a new proposal, he said, Tonks would coach him and the women's double crew but wouldn't be part of Rowing New Zealand's coaching structure.

Drysdale is hopeful the deal will be sorted before Christmas but, the longer it remains in limbo, the worse for him - and, it would appear, his chances at Rio.

Rowing New Zealand Simon Peterson has said they do have a Plan B if the matter with Tonks can't be resolved.

"We've certainly got coaching depth and capacity within our programme to get up and running with another coach but we don't want to go there. We want to resolve this in the interests of Mahe and what he's asked us to do."

Just how keen Drysdale is to have Tonks on board is evident through the amount of lobbying he's been doing on Tonks' behalf.

Drysdale might be in the single scull but he and Tonks certainly work as a pair.

It's a pair that has delivered two Olympic and five world championship titles for Drysdale - and the concern for all involved is a second Olympic gold may be slipping away in front of our eyes.

  • Drysdale says Tonks has put Rio in jeopardy
  • Rowing NZ 'been trying to get rid of me' - Tonks
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  • Tonks named coach of the year