Rowing: Tinkerman of rowing lays down the law

Countdown to Athens: The quest for gold requires ruthless decisions, and Grobler is just the man to take them
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The Independent Online

A training session has just concluded on a gloomy, dank morning at Dorney Lake, the Eton College facility regularly commandeered by the British rowing élite. As the athletes replenish their reserves with protein and carbohydrates provided by bacon-and-egg rolls, Jürgen Grobler reviews his computer print-outs. These mega-athletes have their routines controlled by megabytes, the rowers' times collated on laptop and pored over by coaches. He nods in satisfaction at the figures which detail how close the oarsmen and women are to his optimum gold standard, the times Grobler has decided are required if they are to triumph in Athens this summer.

Born in Magdeburg, in former East Germany, but now in his 13th year here and describing himself as "more British than the Brits", Grobler has acquired a prolific record since first developing his skills at the sports science school in Leipzig. A prospector of high renown, he has overseen, in the GDR, unified Germany and Great Britain, the accumulation of 14 Olympic gold medals and innumerable world championships, with Sydney 2000, and Sir Steve Redgrave's fifth Olympic gold, the zenith. But in recent months he has become the tinkerman of British rowing, drastically changing personnel while redefining the lead boat, even though Matthew Pinsent and James Cracknell remain the spine of the squad. The Frank Lampard and John Terry, if you like.

Before Redgrave arrived and raised the stature of his sport, the question of who would comprise a four and the fact that there had been a late change of fourth man would have been largely an irrelevance to all but the rowing fraternity. But together with sailing, rowing promises the best source of British gold in August, and suddenly such matters have assumed a much weightier significance.

Grobler has a simple response to the debate over his selections. "I believe that something had to be done to ensure that we are a strong part of the Great Britain Olympic team and that we will deliver the goods," he says. "In one way, I don't like it. The expectation and pressure is high enough already, and it would make my life a lot quieter and easier if everything was steady. I don't do things just to make trouble or to show how powerful I am. That's definitely not my style. But neither do I run away from the job. It needed tough decisions."

To reprise: after Sydney, with Redgrave and Tim Foster both retired, it was inevitable that Pinsent and Cracknell would establish themselves as pair. But having won successive world championships in the coxless pair in 2001 and 2002 - on the former occasion claiming the coxed pair on the same day, and on the latter breaking the world record - they were eclipsed by the Australians Jimmy Tomkins and Drew Ginn in Milan last year.

After much conjecture over the winter, Grobler called a tense meeting of six oarsmen at the British training camp in Seville. Cracknell later referred to Grobler's "ruthless" announcement that he and Pinsent would switch to the four, joining Josh West and Steve Williams. That had the consequence of relegating Tony Garbett and Rick Dunn from the four into a slower coxless pair.

Grobler's principal target is gold; he is not just working on the off-chance of securing medals of any hue. Now the four, not the pair, is the lead boat; the one acknowledged as containing the best potential for Olympic success. He explains his rationale regarding the altered deployment of Pinsent and Cracknell: "We had raced everybody in the world, we beat everybody in the world but there was still not the consistency there," he says.

"There was already a bit of a tendency of that, in 2002, when we lost the race in Lucerne [a World Cup event]. Physically, I don't think there was a problem. Both are outstanding. They are still our fastest crew."

He continues: "To me, they did not have the skills to change things through a race, like we had with Steve [Redgrave]. He could change the strategy; he could really read the race. Physically, technically and mentally, he was in charge, and that's what we didn't have. If something went wrong in the first three strokes, it was very difficult for them to turn it around. I believe that in the four both, but particularly James, can bring out their best a lot better than in the smaller boat."

The original four had not won a world title in 2002 or 2003 - they were second both years - and that was not good enough, either, for Grobler. He had not finished there. At last month's British rowing trials at Hazewinkel in Belgium, the men's pair race was won by Alex Partridge and Andy Hodge (Pinsent had viral tonsilitis, so he and Cracknell did not contest the pair), both of whom were from the eight. Partridge, a 23-year-old, was then called into the four at the expense of West. Even now, the British four will have yet another different line-up at the season's first international test, the World Cup at Poznan, Poland, next weekend. Cracknell has a stress fracture of a rib and will be replaced temporarily by Ed Coode.

It was only three years ago that Partridge first appeared in the British squad. "Even by 2002, we were still thinking, 'Should he be in the eight, or not?', never mind the four," recalls Grobler. "So he's made a massive step physically and mentally. You can't hold him back.

"You have to be open-minded to young athletes. Since I have arrived, I've always tried to create a performance-based system. It's not an exclusive club in which nobody from outside can get in. It's not all about heroes. They used to say, 'Oh, Steve Redgrave, he must be in that boat'. No, he had to demonstrate to the team that he earned his seat. It's the same situation with Matthew this time."

The team ethic is crucial to Grobler. He expects oarsmen who fail to be selected to form a particular crew to be highly disappointed; he understands that they may express their displeasure publicly, just so long as it does not affect the squad's morale. "We all have to work for the team," he says. "This is not a one-man show of Jürgen Grobler. We make decisions as a team, with the other coaches and crew members involved. If we win a gold medal, it is not just my gold medal. It is our gold medal as a team. In the same way, if we fail, everybody's head is on the line."

That's why Grobler regards himself as only as good as his oarsmen's next medal. As he puts it: "When I sit down with the guys to eat, I don't get golden spoons. There's no point me telling people, 'I'm great, because I've coached athletes to 14 gold medals'. It will mean nothing unless I do the next job as well as possible."

And with that, he returns to the towpath to view his athletes' next sessions. Time to get on his bike, the traditional rowing coach's conveyance? "No, my car," he says, as he walks to his BMW, fervently hoping, no doubt, that well before Athens he will have charge of a settled, in-form crew.

For the moment, you advise him, the chorus of a popular song of his adopted nation seems highly appropriate: "Sit down, sit down; you're rocking the boat."