Could 2005 be the year that Britain wins the Samsung Super League, which gets underway today (Friday 6 May) at La Baule, in France? Although the French are the obvious favourite for the title, pressures to score a third win could be their undoing.
French show jumping is currently plagued by injuries to some of its top horses, which has forced chef d’equipe Jean-Maurice Bonneau to resort to a number of new combinations. Nine of the 14 pairs who helped win the cup last year are out of action, including Bruno Broucqsault’s 2004 FEI World Cup winner, Dileme de Cephe, who is still recovering from injury in Athens, and Hubert Bourdy’s Eve des Etisses, which competed in Las Vegas.
“Last year, we had 14 pairs, this year we have 11 and there are many changes with horses injured, so we will work on mixing experienced riders with young new recruits,” said Bonneau who remains optimistic about France’s chances to land the cup for the third time.
“The French team has the capacity to exceed itself when it is needed and I trust my riders. This year is one of transition — we have a good tank of young, talented riders — they will find themselves being propelled to the forefront. [It] will be hard, but rising to the challenge when one is impassioned by the high level, as I am, is always interesting.”
The British, by contrast, ended last year in third place and this could be in their favour as they don’t have the same expectations to live up to. Chef d’equipe Derek Ricketts said that he wasn’t planning to make any major changes to his team. “We have eight to 10 riders in the [League] pool and we try to pick the ones who are on form for each individual show,” he explained. John Whitaker, his niece Ellen, William Funnell, Robert Maguire and Nick Skelton (pictured) have been chosen to fly the British flag at La Baule.
German chef d’equipe Kurt Gravemeier should also have plenty of tried and tested combinations to choose from, but he faced a sudden shortage and struggled to put a team together this week.
“It was difficult to find a team for La Baule,” he said. “Two weeks ago, we had seven riders at the World Cup final in Las Vegas and this weekend we have three big shows in Germany. We have a bit of a mixed team here — two boys [Otto Becker and Marco Kutscher] and two girls [Mylene Diedrichsmeier and Pia-Luise Aufrecht] — but we are hoping for a good result.”
Nevertheless Germany, which finished second last year, remains a firm favourite for the title.
At the opposite end of the competition spectrum, new-entry Switzerland, which replaces Italy, will try to prove its mettle against the big boys. Swiss Chef d’Equipe, Rolf Grass, is bullish. “I know that it will not be easy. There are four teams which are stronger than us but three others we can beat. We should finish fourth or fifth in the final classification after Barcelona in September,” he said.
They may stand a chance against Ireland, which is widely expected to be the Cinderella of this tournament. The Irish narrowly missed being demoted to the Samsung Nations Cup last year, when they finished in seventh place. Since then, they were left with no chef d’equipe, after Eddie Macken turned down the position recently. The chairman of Irish selectors, Taylor Vard, has stepped in for the moment, although he hopes to find “someone more experienced than myself in the long term.”
Vard is looking at bringing young riders to top shows this year, but he will stick to the same Super League team as last year. That said, today he will have to do without Jessica Kurten, whose mare, Quibell, is still resting after taking part in the World Cup, Cian O’Connor, who is banned from international competitions until mid-July, and Kevin Babington, who will remain in the United States until just before the European Championships. Trevor Coyle is also out of action, after his mount, Overtime, suffered an injury on Thursday 5 May.
Vard, however, refuses to give in. “We’re used to being the underdogs – that’s when we usually produce our best results, so don’t write us off yet!”