The FEI Nations Cup™ Top League series this year reverts to the eight-leg, eight-team format that was originally established in 2003, and next Friday the 2011 season is set to kick off at La Baule in France.
The most enduring of all FEI disciplines, Nations Cup jumping has stirred the hearts and souls of competitors and spectators alike for more than a century now, and the air of excitement and expectation ahead of the new season is tangible.
Visiting many of the most prestigious venues on the international equestrian circuit, the FEI Nations Cup™ has a cachet all of its own. It is always an honour to be selected to represent your country, and riders proudly fly their national flags in this annual battle for supremacy. But it’s not just about which country fields the strongest sides, this series is also a test of the leadership skills of the all-important Chefs d'Equipe, and a test of the character, courage and determination of the competitors who must ride the waves of the fluctuating fortunes that always accompany competitions of this calibre.
Some of the most thrilling moments come not from the winning side, but from the teams that are fighting to stay in the game and avoid relegation. This season the competing nations are France, Germany, USA, Ireland, Great Britain, The Netherlands, Belgium and Denmark.
Last season saw a particularly tough contest because four teams dropped down to the Promotional League in order to re-create the eight-nation format for 2011. This time around just two nations will face demotion, but even the defending champions from France know how quickly things can go wrong.
When the Samsung Super League was first established in 2003 the French were the dominant force, taking the title in both of the first two seasons. But their performances then deteriorated and they suffered relegation, only to return with renewed vigour to sweep the honours again during the Meydan-sponsored seasons in 2009 and 2010. There is little doubt that the host nation will be the ones to beat this Friday on their home turf, but Chef d'Equipe, Henk Nooren, is taking no chances as he sends out his top-guns to make the best possible start.
His squad includes the man who currently tops the Rolex Rankings, World No 1 and reigning FEI European Champion Kevin Staut, along with Simon Delestre, Penelope Leprevost, Olivier Guillon and the living French legend Michel Robert. Just four riders will line out for each team in Friday's two-round competition which will only be extended to include a third round if two or more nations are tied at the end of round two.
World No. 4 and 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games™ gold medallist Marcus Ehning heads up the German squad that also includes Philipp Weishaupt, Thomas Muhlbauer, Carsten-Otto Nagel and Heiko Schmidt, while the British side will be selected from Nick Skelton, Peter Charles, David McPherson, Robert Smith and William Funnell. The heavyweight Dutch squad consists of Marc Houtzager, Vincent Voorn, Albert Zoer, Jur Vrieling and Eric van der Vleuten, while America's George Morris has Ashlee Bond, Rich Fellers, Margie Engle, Charlie Jayne and Christine McCrea on call-up. Few will have forgotten the spectacular performances of Bond and her lovely chestnut Cadett who produced three sensational double-clears in the early stages of the 2009 season.
Robert Splaine's Irish team includes the on-form Billy Twomey, currently at No. 7 in the Rolex Rankings and winner of last Saturday's leg of the Global Champions Tour at Valencia in Spain. He is joined by Cian O'Connor, Shane Carey, Cameron Hanley and Shane Sweetnam, and the Irish can always be relied upon to fight the good fight under any circumstances.
Belgium returns to the FEI Nations Cup™ family this year after some time in the shadows. They clawed their way back to top-level competition with a clear victory in last season's Promotional League, and with the experience and expertise of 2010 world champion Philippe Le Jeune and 2006 world champion Jos Lansink along with the talent of Dirk Demeersman, Judy-Ann Melchior and Jerome Guery they should be a force to be reckoned with. They will also be hungry to show that their country deserves its place amongst the elite nations of the world once again.
Denmark completes the line-up, having earned a spot in the top-level league this season through victory at the Promotional League Final in Barcelona, Spain last September. Emilie Martinsen, Torben Frandsen, Henrik Gundersen, Thomas Sandgaard and Tina Lund will be facing a whole new standard of sport when they ride into the La Baule arena next Friday, but the word on the street is that this is a side that should not be under-estimated.
Set The Stage
Friday's competition will set the stage for the season, but there is a long summer of intense excitement ahead as the teams move on to Rome (ITA), St Gallen (SUI), Falsterbo (SWE), Aachen (GER), Hickstead (GBR), Dublin (IRL) and finally Rotterdam (NED) before the destination of the FEI Nations Cup™ trophy for 2011 is decided at the end of August.
Join us as we witness the highs and lows, the delights and disappointments, the dramas, twists and turns of another exceptional sporting tournament at the end of which the FEI Nations Cup™ trophy will be presented to the best jumping nation in the world. You can follow it all LIVE on FEI TV - www.feitv.org
For further information on the first leg of the 2011 FEI Nations Cup™ series at La Baule, consult www.labaule-cheval.com
Facts and Figures
102 years of team competition - the FEI Nations Cup™ series is striding purposefully into its second century.
8 top nations - France, USA, Germany, Ireland, The Netherlands, Great Britain, Belgium and Denmark.
8 competitions at 8 world-class venues -La Baule in France, Rome in Italy, St Gallen in Switzerland, Falsterbo in Sweden, Aachen in Germany, Hickstead in Great Britain, Dublin in Ireland and Rotterdam in The Netherlands.
4 riders per team.
2 rounds of jumping - and possibly a third-round jump-off against the clock if teams are tied at the end of the second round.
2 new nations for 2011 - Denmark and Belgium - who emerged from the 2010 Promotional League.
1 title-holder - the French have been the dominant force since the Top League FEI Nations Cup™ concept was first devised in 2003 - they were crowned champions for the first two Samsung-sponsored seasons in 2003 and 2004, and again under the Meydan banner in 2009 and 2010.
FEI Nations Cup™
The FEI Nations Cup™ is a five-star competition in which official teams representing nations compare their merit. At each event the teams gain points according to their placing. At the end of the 2011 season the team with the highest points wins the FEI Nations Cup™ and the two teams with the lowest points will be relegated to the FEI Nations Cup Promotional League. The highest placed team from the 2011 FEI Nations Cup Promotional League Final and the highest placed Team on the FEI European Nations Cup Promotional League standings immediately prior to the 2011 FEI Nations Cup Promotional League Final will join the FEI Nations Cup™ Top League for 2012.
FEI Nations Cup™ 2011 calendar:
La Baule (FRA), Friday 13 May; Rome (ITA), Friday 27 May; St Gallen (SUI), Friday 3 June; Falsterbo (SWE), Friday 8 July; Aachen (GER), Thursday 14 July; Hickstead (GBR), Friday 29 July; Dublin (IRL); Friday 5 August.; Rotterdam (NED), Friday 26 August.