Cambridge have to realise potential

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The Independent Online

Six months to the day after he crossed the finish line in Sydney to claim an Olympic gold medal, Kieran West will attempt to lead Cambridge to victory in the 147th Boat Race today.

Six months to the day after he crossed the finish line in Sydney to claim an Olympic gold medal, Kieran West will attempt to lead Cambridge to victory in the 147th Boat Race today.

West, the president of the Cambridge Boat Race squad, took a year out in 2000 to train for the Olympics, so had to watch last year from the sidelines as Oxford defeated Cambridge for the first time in eight years.

Now he returns to settle the score, intent on bringing the golden tinge of success to a Light Blue crew who are the bookmakers' favourites. With him are three returning Blues, the Olympic spare man Richard Dunn, and the formidable coaching team of Robin Williams and Harry Mahon, for whom the loss last year was their first in this race. Oxford also bring to the field four returning Blues and last year's successful coaching team, but are a slightly shorter and lighter crew than Cambridge.

Cambridge's final week of training has been unsettled, with a temporary shuffle in the crew order focusing their minds on the improvements they had to make to row their best in the race. They will be crucial, as they face a determined and strong Oxford crew, keen to prove that last year's success was no fluke.

The Dark Blues row with a more aggressive style at the finish of the stroke, which can look shorter, but have handled the bouncy water well, and their boat is running smoothly with little check. Cambridge at their best can easily improve on this, but during practice outings have taken a long time to warm up and get the boat to top speed.

In one of their last outings yesterday both crews practised short running and standing bursts, to get the feel of the sluggish water. Oxford rowed powerfully at high rates, but threw plenty of water around, and will need to settle into a strong and efficient rhythm which they can maintain for the whole of the course without wasting energy. Cambridge's pieces lacked conviction at first, but in their final 20-stroke start looked like a different crew, and their pace and flow will be hard to match if they can produce it to order.

Neither style nor power may be as important as the toss for station, however. It is now certain that this year's Boat Race will be run on the slackest tide in several decades, as the rain coming downstream has all but halted the incoming water from the Thames estuary. If the Thames Barrier also closes to prevent flooding in mid-London, the landwater from upriver will create an outgoing stream, against which the crews will have to row this afternoon.

Yesterday's Hackett Thames World Sculling Challenge gave a sneak preview of how this will affect the steering. Instead of a looping course in the normal stream along the centre of the river, the coxes will want to steer as straight a line as they can from corner to corner along the four-and-a-quarter mile race. Whoever has the inside of each bend gains an advantage, and the umpire Rupert Obholzer could end up beating the record for flag-waving, currently standing at 121 times in the course. Two bridges, Hammersmith and Barnes, will interrupt the line the crews take, as they must pass under the centre arches, even if the stream is against them. The final obstacle is the large number of floating branches, dislodged by the flood water, which could impede either crew.

Cool heads and cunning tactics will be required from both coxes, and this may favour Cambridge, whose international steersman Christian Cormack is used to big occasions, and knows the Tideway well. However, the Oxford cox, Jeremy Moncrieff, guided his schoolboy crew to a Henley Royal Regatta medal through some extremely tight races two years ago, and both have expert Tideway coaches to advise them.

Both Cormack and Moncrieff will look to their oarsmen to perform their best, but in the conditions, anything could happen.

In terms of potential Cambridge are favoured, but in terms of consistency Oxford have the edge. The toss could be the crucial factor in deciding which crew lifts the Aberdeen Asset Management Quaich Trophy.