Squad announcements, whatever the sport, can sometimes be bland and predictable affairs — but that mould was well and truly cracked when Great Britain’s Blair Castle-bound European Eventing Championships group became public knowledge this week.
Rumours had been flying around the lorry parks for a while that the chosen dozen would contain a number of exciting newcomers, but very few followers of the sport could genuinely have predicted the final make-up.
Because Britain are hosts for this year’s Europeans, it means their regulation team of four can be supplemented by a higher-than-normal contingent of eight riders, who will compete in Scotland as individuals. Even then, the selectors could have played safe, but not a bit of it.
Alongside established international performers like William Fox-Pitt, Pippa Funnell and Oliver Townend will be five senior squad debutants, with three riders — Dani Evans, Holly Woodhead and Laura Collett — aged 25 or under. The squad’s average age is barely 30.
Evans, from Bristol, and Wiltshire-based Woodhead both produced outstanding performances in the Bramham CCI3* under-25 competition last month, where another European team member, Flora Harris, won the headline CCI3* class.
Collett, meanwhile, is rewarded for impressive consistency on the Nick Gauntlett-produced Grand Manoeuvre, and there are also opportunities for Kitty King (Persimmon), Gemma Tattersall and last year’s Blenheim three-star champion Francis Whittington.
The experienced major medal-winning duo of Fox-Pitt and Nicola Wilson appear to be certainties for the British team in Scotland, with Funnell and Townend enhancing the ‘been there and done it’ brigade, and the overall result is a squad bristling with talent that could make a considerable impression a year out from the Rio Olympics.
And a youthful feel also dominates the reserves list, with 22-year-old Tom Jackson and 25-year-old Wills Oakden first and second among that contingent. Such is the busy eventing season, that it is extremely rare for a selected squad to remain intact all the way through to a major championship, especially with Blair being still two months away.
Reflecting on her selection, Evans said: “I just feel very, very lucky at my age to have this level of horse-power, support team, owners and family behind me to get to me to my first senior championships aged 23. I just can’t wait to get out there and do my country proud.
“I really enjoyed Blair when I was there as part of the British Young Rider team in 2011, when we won team gold. It was an amazing experience to have the home crowd cheering you on around the cross-country.”
And Woodhead added: “It’s crazy! I am overwhelmed. It’s not sunk in yet, and I don’t think it will until I am there with all the seniors. I’ve heard so many great things about Blair, and I love Ian Stark-designed courses. I can’t wait to see what he has built, and I just want to get there and ride it now!”
The mood, meanwhile, was perhaps best summed up this week by Sussex-based Tattersall, who has been one of the most consistent performers on the British circuit, and who many feel should be among the team quartet at Blair.
“When I saw Yogi’s (GB eventing team chef d’equipe Yogi Breisner) call, my heart missed a beat. It was a massive relief to hear from him. I was speechless, in fact, which, as Yogi pointed out, is rare!
“I have been to Blair a few times, and I absolutely love it there, I hope Spike (Arctic Soul) will shine through when he gets there, and he will enjoy those big hills. The cross-country is a bit old-fashioned in the way that it’s a real rider’s course.
“It is the ultimate in eventing in that it’s a proper tough track that will sort the men from the boys!”
Image: Flora Harris, courtesy of Flora Harris