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As the curtain rises on the 2005 Samsung Super League series in La Baule, France next Friday there is really only one big question in everyone's mind - can the French once again dominate the greatest team challenge of the them all or will another of the eight elite nations of the world knock them off their pedestal?
Following their victory in the inaugural 2003 season and again last year the French are bidding for a hat-trick this time around and it has become a matter of national pride that they should retain their supremacy but Chef d'Equipe, Jean-Maurice Bonneau, is under no illusions about the struggle he faces when his first team member canters into the ring on Friday afternoon.
His pool of horses and riders has been dramatically diminished by events completely outside of his control - "of the 14 couples who have participated in the SSL victories, nine are out for a variety of reasons" he explains.
The disappointment of last summer's Olympic effort has left his side with an even greater hunger for success but Monsieur Bonneau must do without many of his strongest players. Eric Navet and Dollar du Murier are no longer a partnership, Bruno Broucqsault's 2004 FEI World Cup winning ride Dileme de Cephe is still recovering from the injury picked up in Athens, Eugenie Angot's mare Cigale du Taillis has been affected by piroplasmosis, Reynald Angot's stallion Tlaloc M is on the mend after a colic operation, Edouard Couperie's Pro Pilot is also convalescing and Diamant de Semilly, the stallion competed by Eric Levallois, is out of action.
As if that is not enough Michel Robert's Galet d'Auzay will be hors de combat for at least four weeks following a fall in Bordeaux, Florian Angot's stallion First de Launay is unavailable as he is covering mares until mid-May and Hubert Bourdy's Eve des Etisses competed at the FEI World Cup final in Las Vegas so will not be lining out until later in the season.
Not the ideal situation heading into one of the toughest team challenges of the entire year, but it is difficult to shake Jean-Maurice Bonneau's faith. "In any case the French team has the capacity to exceed itself when it is needed and I trust my riders" he says. "This year is one of transition - we have a good tank of young, talented riders - they will find themselves being propelled to the forefront" he adds.
He is not prepared to name his La Baule squad until tomorrow but, already, he has lost another contender as Michel Hecart's Kannan has joined the injury-list. However that still leaves him with Gilles de Balanda (Crocus Graverie), Christian Hermon (Ephebe for Ever La Silla), Jean-Marc Nicolas (JPC Modesto) and Laurent Goffinet (Flipper d'Elle HN). Many other team managers would be more than grateful to have any one of those partnerships in their side.
If the French as double-champions are feeling under pressure then the same could be said for Swiss team, but for very different reasons.
The Swiss qualified from the "second-division" Samsung Nations Cup series last season after a long, hard battle and must now prove that they have what it takes to survive at Super League level.
Newly-appointed Swiss Chef d'Equipe, Rolf Grass, knows that it will not be easy but already has his sights set on a finishing spot in the middle of the Samsung Super League table at the end of the 2005 season - "there are four teams which are stronger than us but three others we can beat" he believes. "We should finish fourth or fifth in the final classification after Barcelona in September".
One of his top riders, Markus Fuchs, describes that prediction as "optimistic - between winning Zagreb, Lummen or Buenos Aires and to be at the forefront in La Baule, Rome, Aachen or St Gallen there is a whole world" he says, and he is clearly missing his old friend Tinka's Boy who has now returned home from a German clinic where he has been treated for three months.
Markus says he wants "100% reassurance" that his great horse still wants to compete - "in my head I have made a cross above his sporting career. If he still has the will to go on at the end of the year we will see" he explains, but he travels to La Baule with the 10 year old Belgian mare La Toya.
The Swiss selection also includes Fabio Crotta, Christina Liebherr and Niklaus Schurtenberger - the latter earning his stripes having contributed to three of the five Swiss nations cups victories last season.
The Swiss may be feeling vulnerable but many consider the weakest link in the 2005 Samsung Super League chain to be the Irish. They survived the 2004 series more due to Italy's weakness than their own strength and will need to come up with considerably better results this time around if they want to hold onto their Super League status.
This small country with limited resources relies hugely on just a few riders to keep their hopes and dreams afloat and with Jessica Kurten out of the immediate picture as her mare Quibell is now resting after her World Cup endeavors, Cian O'Connor sidelined until July due to his ban from international competition and American-based Kevin Babington remaining in the US until just before the European Championships the weight, this weekend, falls on a mixed squad who carry a heavy burden.
Robert Splaine's stallion Clarion Hotel Coolcorron Cool Diamond has proven himself to be true Super League material in previous seasons but Dave Quigley experienced a major learning curve when making his maiden Super League voyage in Barcelona last September while Denis Lynch and Harry Marshall will be first-timers at this level of the sport. Trevor Coyle, who enjoyed a sparkling career with the stallion Cruising throughout the 1990's, is also in the Irish side.
Eddie Macken's recent decision to turn down the job of Chef d'Equipe has come as a bitter disappointment to the Irish but Chairman of Selectors, Taylor Vard, has stepped into the breach and insists that its not all gloom and doom - "we're used to being the underdogs - that's when we usually produce our best results, so don't write us off yet!" he says.
The British were consistently good throughout the 2004 season and send John Whitaker and his niece, Ellen, to fly the flag alongside William Funnell, Robert Maguire and Nick Skelton - without Arko who was at the FEI World Cup final.
The Dutch side includes Roelof Bril, Jeroen Dubbeldam, Angelique Hoorn, Wout-Jan Van der Schans and Albert Zoer and the US squad is an all-girl affair. Could Laura Kraut, Anne Kursinski, Beezie Madden, Schuyler Riley and Georgina Bloomberg further enhance the reputation of the lady show jumpers and follow in the footsteps of Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum who showed the boys a clean pair of heels in Las Vegas?
In an unusual turn of events there are also two lady-riders on the German side which sees Mylene Diedrichsmeier and Pia-Luise Aufrecht joined by Otto Becker and Marco Kutscher - the girls really seem to be in the ascendancy again in the sport following some time in the
There are of course lots of unknowns going into the first leg of the 2005 Samsung Super League. The first big test of the year on grass can often be unpredictable with the extra space and different dimensions of fences and distances requiring some adjustment and creating a few surprises. Experienced course designers Serge Houtman and Frederic Cottier will be well-aware of that as they set their track this Friday afternoon and the home side will be hoping to get off to the right start. Last year Germany headed the line-up at La Baule with the French in second while the USA, in their debut season, slotted into third.
Jean-Maurice Bonneau knows that all eyes will be on him and that, despite his selection difficulties, French expectations will be high. To claim a third Samsung Super League would be an extraordinary achievement but he warns that "it is necessary to be realistic".
"The year will be hard, but rising to the challenge when one is impassioned by the high level, as I am, is always interesting" he says.
For the eight elite show jumping nations of the world - France, Germany, Belgium, Holland, Switzerland, Great Britain, USA and Ireland - that challenge begins this Friday. It will take us to eight magnificent venues in eight countries over the next five months and culminates in the final in Barcelona in September. Eight nations, eight competitions but only one Samsung Super League trophy. Can the French do it again, even against all the odds?
SAMSUNG SUPER LEAGUE - NATIONAL PRIDE, INTERNATIONAL PASSION!
For further information on the forthcoming CSIO 5* at La Baule contact Agence Uni-d-fox, Karine Devilder and Emilie Pastureau at Tel: +33 (0) 557 745081 , Fax: +33 (0) 557 745082 or email email@example.com. During the show you can reach Karine and Emilie at Tel: +33 (0) 240 608868 or Fax: +33 (0) 240 608931. Live results and plenty of other useful information are published on website www.labaule-cheval.com.
SAMSUNG SUPER LEAGUE 2005 CALENDAR OF EVENTS:
ROUND 1 - La Baule (Fra) 5-8 May; ROUND 2 - Rome (Ita) 26-29 May; ROUND 3 - St Gallen (Sui) 02-05 June; ROUND 4 - Rotterdam (Ned) 16-19 June; ROUND 5 - Hickstead (GBR) 28-31 July; ROUND 6 - Dublin (Irl) 03-07
August; ROUND 7 - Aachen (Ger) 23-28 August; ROUND 8 and FINAL - Barcelona (Esp) 15-18 September.
You can access all the latest Samsung Super League news and information on website www.samsungsuperleague.com – which new revamped version will be unveiled this Friday - and don't forget that BIOGRAPHIES on all riders competing in the series are available at http://bios.horsesport.org.
The Samsung Super league consists of the eight most prestigious horse shows at which the world's eight best national teams compare their merit. The Super League is connected to the Samsung Nations Cup series through a promotion/relegation system at the end of each season.
Samsung Electronics, one of the world's largest electronics companies, is committed to supporting international sporting events thereby returning corporate profits to the public and working towards a more harmonious and equitable society.