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Rejects putting the awesome back into foursome

7 August 2009

Rejects, misfits ... call them what you like. But the Australian men's four crew have started to bring the "awe" back into the most famous rowing boat the country has seen.

Francis Hegerty, James Marburg, Matt Ryan and Cameron McKenzie-McHarg are following in the footsteps of the Oarsome Foursome, driven to emulate their world-beating feats after enjoying their own stunning initial success.

The tight-knit quartet head to Europe on Sunday as Australia's strongest hope of winning world championship gold in Poznan, Poland at the end of the month. If not for a desperate late surge by the powerful Great Britain crew at the Shunyi Regatta Centre last August, Hegerty, Marburg, Ryan and McKenzie-McHarg would have been the Australian fairytale story of the Beijing Olympics.

It was a case of so close but no cigar as they went within a few strokes of producing the biggest boilover of the regatta - leading the defending champion British all the way until the line.

However, few regrets linger.

Just being in China was reward enough in retrospect after all four were overlooked six months earlier for seats on Rowing Australia's priority men's boat, the eight.

That was a crushing blow. With triple gold medallist and former "Oarsome" member James Tomkins making Beijing his swansong, Games triallists were all hell-bent on making the eight for the blue-riband event which Australia had never won in the Olympic arena.

After months of selection trials, played out well in the background as the spotlight shone on Sally Robbins' failed quest to earn a sculling berth, Hegerty, Marburg, Ryan and McKenzie-McHarg narrowly missed selection.

The four were ranked ninth to 12th, effectively the 11th to 14th best sweep oarsmen in the country when pre-selected men's pair world champions Drew Ginn and Duncan Free were taken into account.

"It was very disappointing at the time but you look back and think that was probably the best thing that could ever happen to us," Marburg says.

"But I remember at the time it was extremely depressing. You had put four or eight years of your life into it. "You really do struggle with it."

Ironically, while the "B-grade" men's four then had to qualify their boat for Beijing and went to the Olympics as rank underdogs, the highly-fancied men's eight bombed out, finishing dead last in their final.

"It was `out of adversity comes your best results', and that's a bit of what happened for us," says Hegerty.

"We were all quite upset with how the trialling went down. We all felt we were wrong done by a bit.

"Out of that we all committed and said `Right this is now our journey together and let's make it all we can and make this boat the quickest we can make it'."

The commitments have continued for the new 'Foursome', who aptly named their boat after Mike McKay, who won gold in 1992 and 1996 with Tomkins and Nick Green. Ginn completed the Atlanta crew when he replaced original Barcelona member Andrew Cooper.

The Sydney and Melbourne-based crew have made a pact to stay together through to the 2012 London Games where they aim to avenge their defeat by the British, who have owned the event since the Oarsome Foursome disbanded.

"Especially considering the British came to Australia in 2000 (for the Sydney Olympics) and took the gold away in the four, we'd ideally like to go to London in 2012 and take it back," said Hegerty with a grin. "1992, 1996 was Australia, 2000, 2004 and 2008 was Britain so hopefully we can take it back in the next one."

The new boys - three of whom hold part-time finance jobs while Ryan is a schoolboys rowing coach - eagerly embrace the legacy of their 1990s predecessors.

"The Oarsome Foursome created a really good awe and gave the sport a good identity," says Hegerty.

"That makes it an attractive boat to row. It does give you that bit of extra Australian pride.

"People know the boat was the Oarsome Foursome's and we'd like to promote that again for the next Olympics."

It all starts in Poland where, like Beijing, the under-rated Australians will enter under the radar. For financial reasons and being the first year out of an Olympic cycle, Rowing Australia this year opted against sending crews to the World Cup regattas in Europe.

But while those meets have been held, the 10 Australian boats competing in Poznan have been simulating their own competition. The men's four have paid particular attention to the times and results in their event, and have been more than encouraged by how they're tracking in comparison.

They can also compare themselves to their own build-up to Beijing last year. The signs are there the 2008 dark horses will take the rest of the world by surprise again.

"We can hopefully bust on the scene at the world champs," Hegerty says.

"The times we have been doing in the last week have been a bit quicker than the times we were doing at the same time in the lead up to the Olympics."

Marburg adds: "The other thing is they don't know how we're going and that's fantastic. We can see all their data but they can't see ours."

Great Britain will have a new-look boat in Poznan with two of their Olympic rowers teaming in the men's pair and the other two having a break. It doesn't lessen the Tim Conrad-coached quartet's desire to fire a shot across the Brits' bow, even though the Americans, Slovenians and Czechs may provide to be the biggest obstacles.

"We want to win and we do want to make a statement and we want to make it our event through to the London Olympics and we do want to win every race we row between now and then," Marburg says.

"We want to dominate through the whole Olympic cycle."


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