By Greg Stutchbury
WELLINGTON (Reuters) - Rowing New Zealand (RNZ) put a public dispute with one of their coaches behind them to select their largest ever Olympic squad on Friday, headlined by London 2012 champions Mahe Drysdale, Hamish Bond and Eric Murray.
Selectors named 33 rowers in nine different boats to contest the Rio Games in August, with 15 more tasked with trying to qualify a further five crews at the final selection regatta in Lucerne, Switzerland from May 22-25.
Rowing has 14 separate classes at the Olympics with Germany the only nation to qualify all 14 boats in 2012. New Zealand had 11 at London and won three golds and two bronzes to finish second on the medal table behind hosts Britain.
RNZ was embroiled in controversy at the end of last year, however, when the coach of Drysdale and world champion women's double Eve Macfarlane and Zoe Stevenson resigned following a row over his decision to offer freelance coaching to foreign crews.
The dispute between Dick Tonks and RNZ rumbled on for about a month, with fears both boats would need to change their coach or step outside the centralized program altogether.
It was eventually settled in January with an agreement that allows Tonks to coach the two crews through to Rio but he will remain outside the RNZ program.
"It was tough," Drysdale told Reuters via telephone from the program's base in Cambridge, about 150 kilometers south of Auckland. "I guess it was the fact of not knowing whether anything was going to come out of it.
"As soon as that decision was made and the solution reached, it was a huge relief to the double and myself because we knew where we were going."
Five-time world champion Drysdale will compete at his fourth Olympics and after taking a year out following London, is considered a hot favorites for a medal at Rio, with RNZ aiming for five in total.
The men's pair of Bond and Murray, who are unbeaten since joining forces in 2009, are also expected to be medal favorites in Rio.
"We have won 60-something races in a row and it doesn't take a rocket scientist to put pretty short odds on us winning the next race," Bond said. "I know that if we get near to our best then we'll be difficult to beat."
The team won nine medals at last year's world championships, seven in Olympic events, and could add to that total in Rio with the welcome return of women's single sculler Emma Twigg.
Twigg, the 2014 world champion, took a year out in 2015 to complete a postgraduate degree in Europe and needs to qualify the boat at Lucerne to advance to Brazil.
"It's certainly not going to be easy but I believe that if I'm in the best shape I can be, it's just another step on the way to Rio," she said.
(Editing by John O'Brien)