`Front-wheel drive' threat to Cambridge

141ST BOAT RACE: Light Blues to rely on rhythm while Oxford's smooth movers aim for uncomfortably high tempo
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The Boat Race today will be just that, a real race. In spite of the phenomenal amount of training these oarsmen have done, more depends on their personalities than on the raw physiological data. On physique alone, however, Cambridge have the edge.

In Scott Brownlee the Light Blues have the most powerful, though not the biggest, man they have had since reliable measurement was developed. They have several others of Olympic finalist calibre: Marko Banovic, Matt Parish and the president, Richard Phelps . But this bruising power has not yet been translated into speed.

This afternoon the crew may demonstrate their greatness in the only proper contest of their six-month life cycle. But there are niggling doubts. For instance, Brownlee went down with diarrhoea on Wednesday.

This will have no effect on the outcome today, but combined with his being moved back from No 6 to No 4 it alerts outsiders, including the Oxford coaches, to look for weaknesses in the line-up - and this brings attention to bear on the stern pair.

Miles Barnett at stroke has a quarter of the experience and rowing clout of the Croat powerhouse, Marko Banovic, at No 7. If Banovic is disciplined and helpful in backing Barnett, the whole crew can throw off its chains and fly. But Banovic is immensely proud of his power and as Robin Williams, their chief coach, says: "he sometimes looks as if he is carrying a quarter of the boat, not one eighth."

Taken individually these two are winners, but the last thing the Light Blues want is to take them individually: they want them as a mutually supportive pair. If Banovic tempers his desire to prove himself as "the man of change" and subordinates his wishes to those of the crew, the rest, now led by Matt Parish at No 6, will have some rhythm to follow.

But this still leaves problems. Banovic is happiest rating a low number of strokes to the minute - the Cambridge eight does a lot of its work at 33 to the minute.

Usually, Boat Race crews still cover over four miles in 35 or 36 strokes to the minute. If the crews are actually as even as it now sometimes appears, the ability to change pace and press home some small advantage of stream will depend on an ability to change gear and accelerate.

Cambridge have come out even, or better, in all their matches (except, perhaps, against Goldie, their own reserves). But they did allow Notts County to row past them and were seemingly unable to do anything about it except wait until stream and the bend came their way.

The Oxford crew comes into the race measuring lower on every physical scale. But personalities have a bigger role to play here than any year since 1987. Then the incumbent coach, Daniel Topolski, was at war with half his squad and raced with four certain Blues standing mutinously on the bank.

The crew drawn from the rump of his boat club was written off by the press, and the bookmakers, but he persuaded them to reach for the skies which promptly exploded into a Wagnerian storm which swamped the Light Blue spirit. Oxford won when they should, on any statistical estimate, have lost.

Topolski is back for the first year since that moment of magic and things are different now. He has a chief coach, Penny Chuter, who sets the programme and runs the training so that not a moment is wasted. She also has the technical expertise to plot every detail of the crew's physical development and to explain it to the men.

An initial suspicion of her as perhaps a touch obsessive has been replaced with a deep respect. This crew will set out on their voyage of hope knowing that they are as well prepared as the circumstances of a flooding Thames and absentee Blues could permit, and it is already riding high on Topolski's confidence.

Oxford have found that their best seating order places the more powerful men in the bows and the smoother, more fluent movers in the stern. It is, in Chuter's words, "front wheel drive". The link between the president, Jeremiah McLanahan, at No 5 and his fellow American Laird Reed at No 4, is as vital as the one between the Cambridge stern pair.

If McLanahan and Reed get it right, Oxford will have the rhythm to push beyond their immediate limits and may be able to put enough pressure on the Light Blues to force a breakdown.

The umpire, Lynton Richmond, Oxford president in 1985, and, as importantly, a crew-mate of the present Cambridge coach, will expect to have the crews alongside one another for longer than usual. He is authoritative enough to avoid any disastrous clashes, but he will have to use the flag wisely if it is not to affect the outcome by allowing either to get the better of the stream as they enter the bends.

The bookmakers are generous in offering 5-2 against Oxford, but they are probably right. Cambridge should win, but nothing is guaranteed when two sets of eight men must for 16 minutes give: "all for one one for all".

Varsity bursary dispute, page 4

Oxbridge rowing rows, page 15