Targeted In – Never To Leave

Remember the bad old days when the only thing harder than being selected to play rugby for New Zealand was getting out of the team when players were passed their best. There have been numerous examples of players being selected after their sell-by date. The reason is obvious. It is easy for selectors to add a player. Dropping a national icon like a Meads or a Shelford; now that is tough. But in many ways the dropping decisions measure a sport’s maturity and determine its right to walk on the world stage.

The decision to drop players is good because it clears a path for new talent and it tells old and new alike that only their very best will be good enough to stay in the team. The cost of delinquency will be high and immediate. There is no place for sentiment in elite world sport.

I was reminded of all that as I listened to Gary Francis bang-on about the Francis Plan. Athletes would be selected on the basis of the Francis Table of times. Once selected swimmers would be entitled to the best Swimming New Zealand (SNZ) could provide. But there was no discussion about being dropped, apart from an assurance your position was safe for two years. What a cop-out. A vital part of the plan was skipped over lightly. And the bit that wasn’t skipped over is open to deception and abuse.

Because SNZ already have a targeted team. It’s called the Aqua Blacks. The SNZ website tells me these are the twelve members of that team. I have excluded para members.

Bradlee Ashby Lewis Clareburt Carina Doyle Helena Gasson
Bobbi Gichard Daniel Hunter Corey Main Georgia Marris
Samuel Perry Bronagh Ryan Matthew Stanley Laticia-Leigh Transom

There are one or two names missing that I would have thought should have been on the list. Gabrielle Fa’amausili for example. However that is a subject for another day. Today’s question is those included in the team. Should they be there, or should they be dropped?

Now I have no idea of the personal drama going on in these people’s lives. You can only read the tea-leaves and wonder. But there are questions that Gary Francis should answer, questions that will demonstrate whether the SNZ elite program is in good hands and deserves to be taken seriously. Or is it instead just more of the backsliding that has led us nowhere for twenty years?

Bradlee Ashby for example. Three or four times a week I visit his training pool. On too many occasions recently I haven’t seen him at training. Is that because he is skipping workouts? The poolside gossip is that he has girlfriend problems. Who knows?  But he does not appear to be entered in the Opens. It is a bad look and raises the unfortunate spectre of dodging his new rival, Lewis Clareburt. Remember New Zealand’s greatest athletes – men like Loader, Walker, Dixon and Quax? They scoured the world looking for close competition. They would have enjoyed nothing better than to join in an Ashby/Clareburt-type scrap. Instead one half of the fight is away doing something else. If true, all that combined with the publicity mistakes made prior to Brisbane would have been enough for me to drop him from the team.

And Helena Gasson has some of the same questions to answer. It seems that her progress has stalled and now she is missing the National Championships. Is Francis issuing a strong “please explain” letter? Because if he doesn’t the program is not being managed the way it should.

Bobbi Gichard hasn’t swum a PB in the 100 or 200 backstroke since 2015. She has been through a variety of clubs and coaches which is never a good sign. Her only two entries in the Opens are a couple of relay swims. There is work for Gary Francis to do.

Georgia Marris also appears to be skipping the Opens. The list of New Zealand’s best swimmers who are dodging the event should be giving Francis cause for concern. But it won’t. All will be forgiven. SNZ is devoid of the character required to make the tough calls.

Goodness knows why Bronagh Ryan isn’t entered. Women’s breaststroke swimming in New Zealand is in a parlous state. It needs all the competition it can get. New Zealand swimming will be hurt by these defections. The look and the reality are terrible. Gary Francis would being doing the sport a big favour by addressing something this serious instead of spending money on reinventing tables that FINA does better and for free.

Matthew Stanley lives in Australia which may be some sort of excuse for missing the Championships. However these days the return flight from Brisbane ($809) is less than traveling from Invercargill ($934). Besides, SNZ should pay the fare for a swimmer of Stanley’s ability. The other sad feature of Stanley’s absence is it robs the Championships of a good race between the old guard (Stanley) and the new boys on the block (Reid and Clareburt). These matchups are the making of a sport. It’s a pity SNZ gets it wrong every time.

And finally Laticia-Leigh Transom isn’t swimming. The same Australian comments made in respect of Stanley apply in her case.

So what Gary Francis has on his hands is a targeted Aqua Blacks team of twelve swimmers. Of these, seven are not swimming in the National Open Championships or are only entered in a couple of relays. Just imagine Steve Hansen’s reaction if a majority of the All Black squad found a reason not to play. All hell would break loose. But in swimming it won’t be a problem. Johns and Francis will find excuses to sweep the mutiny of New Zealand’s best swimmers under the carpet. Leadership requires courage. In my view Johns and Francis don’t have the strength of character to initiate the bold response required. And in the process swimming in New Zealand will become another step poorer.

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