Boat race blues

9 June 2009

James Stevens analyses a disappointing result to a promising race

The Boat Race offers a unique spectacle at the end of Lent term. Eighteen people who are largely outside the normal university social circle become the centre of focus for both Universities and the public at large as they engage in self-inflicted brutalisation for twenty minutes on the river Thames.

With training that must be measured in years, and not months, boiling down to such a short race the pressure on the crews cannot be underestimated. However, this year Cambridge had the relatively more relaxed position, following their decimation at the hands of Oxford the previous year.

Early results in the Fours Head had been promising and under new head coach Chris Nilsson, Cambridge was regarded as having a very strong technical base from which to launch their campaign. The squad appeared to have confidence in their ability, and they had prepared confidently for the day, with the slight blip of Ryan Monaghan’s back scare in training just before the race.

Over in the Dark Blue camp the story was a little different. With a focus more on power then finesse, Oxford were happy to become the heaviest crew in history in an attempt to give themselves the edge when it mattered on race day; something which proved decisive. The early exchanges on the start line lent in Oxford’s favour as the Cambridge cox Rebecca Dowbiggin failed to put her hand back up in time before the start of the race to signal that her crew were not ready. As a result Oxford had a slightly more composed and driven start off the line, giving them an early lead.

However, Cambridge responded well and Dowbiggin soon redeemed herself with her tideway and boat race experience allowing her to dominate Colin Groshong (the Dark Blue Cox) in the early section of the race. By holding the stream for the majority of the early stages, Dowbiggin gave the Cambridge crew a great chance to move ahead and set up some clear water between them and Oxford before the advantage of the Surrey station ran out. Unfortunately, for every push made by the Light Blues, Oxford seemed to be able to offer up a response and as a result Cambridge were able only to put themselves half a length ahead two miles in.

Approaching the long Surrey Bend Oxford began to come back into it and Groshong started to compete with Dowbiggin for the stream; this coxing battle resulted in a flurry of warnings to both sides from race umpire Boris Rankov. Cambridge, sensing that the Surrey Bank advantage was soon to run out tried to push clear of the Oxford eight. However, in moving for power over length, Cambridge lost more than they gained and with Dowbiggin clinging onto the stream against the umpire’s warnings, the inevitable soon happened and there was a clash of blades between the Cambridge 7 man Tom Ransley and Colin Smith sitting at 2 for Oxford. Once the crews had separated, it was clear that Cambridge was struggling to re-establish a rhythm and with the Light Blues rating around 32-33; Groshong saw his opportunity. Oxford increased their rate of striking right up to 40 in two short bursts, which caught Cambridge napping, as it had done only a year before.

Whether it was simply an issue of power and stamina in the Oxford crew or the fact that Cambridge had pushed too hard in an attempt to open up clear water, the difference in speeds between the crews during that period was drastic and led to a complete reversal of roles in less than two minutes. Oxford, with the bends now in their favour, began to push through Cambridge quickly, and by Chiswick Steps were two seconds ahead. The rest of the race was essentially a foregone conclusion, yet credit should be given to the Cambridge crew who held their own for the remainder of the race, but unfortunately never looked like taking anything back from the boys in the Dark Blue, who finished 12 seconds in front.
Where Cambridge go from here is anybody’s guess, with Dowbiggin and a few of the rowers set to leave at the end of the year. With fresh intake promised, it may be that next year we will see a new start for Cambridge and a chance for Nilsson to set out his stall in full after a delayed start to training this year. On top of that Nilsson should be able to take advantage of the lessons he has learned from this year’s race to tweak his training regime so as to trim the gap between the two crews. But all we can hope for as spectators is that next year we’ll have something to shout about after two years of a rather silent Cambridge crowd.