Tonks is the rock
Chris Ineson, who ran the Sports Foundation through the 1990s, made one enduring contribution to New Zealand sport, and it’s still paying dividends.
When Rob Waddell was starting to win world single sculls titles, some of the major rowing nations began to cast an eye at New Zealand and wonder who the mastermind behind his successes was.
They settled on coach Dick Tonks and there were some tempting financial offers for him from overseas.
Ineson worked hard to put an attractive package in place to retain him.
It worked. Tonks stayed with the Karapiro-based elite New Zealand rowing squad, coaching some crews himself and overseeing the entire programme.
New Zealand has had phenomenal success over the past 12 or 15 years, and it culminated last week at the London Olympics, when the rowers won five medals, three of them gold.
New Zealand has had plenty of Olympic rowing success before, but we’ve never won more than three medals at one games. To win five, and have more crews in finals, was incredible.
The New Zealand rowing squad was the talk of the rowing fraternity at Eton Dorney.
The question that was asked repeatedly was: how does such a small country produce a conveyer belt of champions?
Obviously it’s crucial to have great athletes. But it takes more than that and Tonks is a key figure in the rowing programme.
An Olympic rowing medallist himself in 1972, Tonks has guided dozens of champions since the early 1990s, when he began his coaching career in Whanganui.
The most famous members of the recent rowing squads have been Waddell and the EversSwindell twins – now retired – and gold medallists Mahe Drysdale, Eric Murray, Hamish Bond, Joseph Sullivan and Nathan Cohen of the current Olympic team. But there have been many more world champions.
Since single sculler Darcy Hadfield won the first Olympic medal for New Zealand, in 1920, our rowers have won 21 medals, nine of them gold.
It’s revealing that the two great eras, in the late 1960s-early 70s, and from about 1997 to now, have been built around champion coaches in Rusty Robertson and Tonks.
Neither man fits the more recent image of a professional coach – showy, talkative and enjoying the spotlight.
Tonks doesn’t say a lot, but his rowers hang off every word.
There are several ‘‘professional’’ sports teams in New Zealand – the All Blacks, the Warriors, the Phoenix, the men’s cricket team.
None are even close to matching the rowers in terms of professionalism, discipline, meticulous preparation and achievement.
Competing in what is close to a global sport, they have built an astoundingly successful record. The rowers work closely together, get on well, and enjoy each other’s successes. They should be the role model for all other New Zealand sports teams.