I spent almost 10 hours on the Tideway between Putney and Chiswick today, trying to work out who has the edge for Saturday’s Boat Race. I have little more proof than I had this morning, but my hunch remains.
With two days to go, the crews kept their outings light, covering less than half the course in their morning trips out, then practising starts off the stake-boats neat Putney Bridge for the first time on a sunny, clear afternoon with the light easterly wind that is expected on race day.
Of the six Tideway Weeks I’ve attended, going back seven years, Cambridge have usually looked better technically and that has not changed this year. Coached now by Steve Trapmore, who stroked a wonderfully drilled Great Britain eight to Olympic gold in Sydney 11 years ago, the light blues are in that mould: sitting tall, balancing beautifully through the second part of the recovery, catching crisply and sending powerfully, although there is a little lugging here and there.
Canadian Geoff Roth stands out in the six-seat, while Aussie Hardy Cubasch backs him well from four and there are no surrounding loose ends. Derek Rasmussen and George Nash, who sit either side of Roth, are fellow Blues – Boat Race veterans. Cambridge lack the lean-back that Trapmore’s predecessors Chris Nilsson and Duncan Holland instilled but they look powerful through that shorter drive phase.
Oxford, out on the water an hour later, took over two miles before they were rowing all eight, concentrating on outside-arm exercises rowing in fours and sixes. In contrast to Cambridge, they look scrappy, until the work goes on, at which point it clearly goes on. Of the six Boat Races I’ve attended, Oxford have won four in a manner much like this.
The dark blues put in some powerful but messy practice starts in the morning and I was keen to see whether they would be able to add length later in the day, but I was disappointed as their longest piece in three off the Boat Race start lasted just 30 strokes. Their time over the first 15 was very similar to that of Cambridge – I reckon about a 10th of a second either way, using a manual stopwatch – although Cambridge had found a nice rhythm by stroke 20 while Oxford were still piling along rating 42.
Which leaves me with my hunch. The only time I’ve seen the full Oxford Blue Boat in action was in a fixture against Molesey Boat Club a month ago, when their rhythm looked good but their punch later in the piece seemed lacking (and one race ended with a boat-stopping clash just after Barnes Bridge). Use too much energy early and your opponent will find you out later, my theory goes. (See article here.)
Cambridge raced Molesey a fortnight later, with the margins in two pieces apparently pretty similar. One other factor adds to that gut feeling that Oxford will come up short: coach Sean Bowden lacks his usual air, one of confidence that just skirts the borders of arrogance. He could win his 10th race in his 17th attempt – four of which came with Cambridge in the 1990s – but his demeanour at the ceremonial weigh-in (when Oxford were marginally lighter) was not confident.
Race umpire Rob Clegg conceded he has not seen a huge amount of either crew but the evidence of those matches against Molesey was enough for him to say: “From seeing both crews against the same crew and their relative speeds I would say they've evenly matched.” Asked where clashes were most likely, he replied: “The hardest part is before and through Barnes Bridge – it’s a tight corner and a narrow bridge. If the two crews are neck-and-neck, there will be some work to do for the umpire.”
I’ll put my neck on the line: I expect Cambridge to win, making their mark just before that third bridge on the course, either by coming through or opening an unbridgeable gap. By then the crews will have been side by side for around 14 minutes, and it will be the last six months of hard work, rather than this last week of fine-tuning, that will really count.