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By Amy Tennery
TOKYO (Reuters) - Britain's title defence in the men's eight got off to a rocky start in Tokyo on Saturday, as the Netherlands scored a stunning victory to force the reigning European Champions into Wednesday's repechage.
Making her Olympic debut, 24-year-old coxswain Eline Berger guided the Dutch men's crew to a stellar 5:30.66 performance, seizing the early lead as the heavily favoured Britain struggled to hit their stride and finished third behind New Zealand.
Elsewhere in the men's event, reigning world champions Germany fended off a robust challenge from the United States, turning on the gas in the final 500 metres to finish on top in 5:28.95.
The men's and women's eights heats were added to Saturday's programme from Sunday after organisers wiped clean Monday's schedule, citing concerns over expected inclement weather.
It was not all doom and gloom for Britain, however.
The men's four, which has picked up gold at the last five Games, and the lightweight women's double sculls crews advanced, along with two-time Olympic champion Helen Glover and team mate Polly Swann in the coxless pair, months after Glover made a surprise a return to elite rowing.
"It wasn't our perfect row but I guess there's value in learning in the early rounds," said Glover, 35, of their third-place finish on Saturday. "We're open to what's going to come next."
In the women's eight, the United States overcame a slow start to defeat Romania and Australia as expected, kicking off its bid for a fourth consecutive Olympic gold, while reigning world champions New Zealand advanced to the final as well.
Two members of the Kiwi crew, Grace Prendergast and Kerri Gowler, also won their pairs heat earlier in the day.
It was a history-making day at the fan-free Sea Forest Waterway, as the women's four - introduced as part of the sport's new, gender-equal programme - made its Olympic debut.
Reigning world champions Australia clinched their heat in the event during a banner day for the delegation, with four crews advancing.
And finally, Rio double sculls champions Martin and Valent Sinkovic of Croatia proved just as powerful in the sweep, clinching their heat in the men's pair by a 4.52-second margin in 6:32.41, after picking up the World Championship title in 2019.
"It was really hard these last five years in the pair," said Valent. "In the end we are satisfied where we are."
Olympic rowing continues on Sunday.
(Reporting by Amy Tennery in Tokyo; Editing by Stephen Coates)