Dark Blues infused with rhythm of Smith

THE BOAT RACE British undergraduates return to the helm as Oxford take a gamble on 18-year-old junior world champion
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The Independent Online

The most regular complaint about the Boat Race reads as follows: it is no longer a race between British undergraduates. Now it is all body-building Americans reading elevator sciences. This year, though, "Disgusted of Putney" will have to blink and look again.

Oxford's front five and cox are all from the traditional sources, as are the cox, stern three and bow man from Cambridge. Hampton, St Paul's, Radley - the leading rowing school these days - Shrewsbury, King's School Canterbury and Eton, along with Oundle and Cheltenham, are all represented.

The surprise package is Matthew Smith, formerly of Hampton and rowing at No 4 for the Dark Blues. Smith is 18 and weighs exactly 12st. In front of him, Dan Snow measures 15st 9lb and Ben Burch, behind him, 14st 8lb. He measures 6ft 1in in a crew averaging 6ft 4in, the tallest ever to race for Oxford.

What is this waif doing in the heart of the engine room of a crew whose most obvious advantage is the 11lb-a-man weight margin? Sean Bowden, the coach responsible for putting him there, says: "He's a bloody good oarsman. That's why. He's hardly lost a race in his life."

He is one of three proven stroke men in the Oxford group. Nick Robinson, the president, sits at No 2, while Alex Reid, who won three times for Yale over Harvard, has the stroke seat. Smith was tried at stroke for a time during training and in the private match with Molesey and although the crew rowed away from the opposition on his watch, it was Reid who got the job because he has a record of digging in when the chips are down and dragging crews back in front by sheer force of personality. Perhaps more importantly Smith is being used at four to "restart the rhythm in the middle of the boat". This is, at its most charitable, a sign that Reid's racing nous is greater than the conviction with which he sets the cadence and the ratio of the time spent on the recovery - as the oarsmen slide forward, relaxing before the next stroke - and the time they spend with the blade in the water.

It also is tacit acknowledgment that the powerful men at numbers five and six, Toby Ayer and Dan Snow, may be more wood choppers than lounge lizards with the blade in their hands. Smith says Bowden "will be there and doing the right thing well". It is a very clear signal about the importance of rhythm. On power alone Smith would not make it. His ergometer scores are well below the normal blue boat standard; but then they are also below the norm for a Junior World Champion in the coxed four, which is the donkey of all the junior boats.

The cox is an extra load to carry, spread between four men who usually are the biggest, strongest men available. But less than a year ago, within a fortnight of leaving school, Smith was stroke of the British four which won in Plovdiv, Bulgaria. It was Britain's first junior rowing gold since 1992. It was also a triumph of will and skill over brawn and in exactly the same spirit as his presence in the Dark Blue engine room this Saturday.

He took six weeks away from training before starting all over again at Oxford. You wonder that Smith has any time for a life on top of this extraordinary devotion to success. "I'm reading biological sciences and have to be pretty well organised. I do work quite quickly and having these demands on my time mean that I have learned not to faff around. I get on with it until it is finished, and then move on."

He is quick with the reply when asked what he drinks - "Oh lager, mostly" - but when pressed, admits: "We tend not to drink while in training but mostly after the race. I had a beer after training camp and before that probably not since New Year's Eve."

At 12st he is only just above the limit for international lightweight rowing and does not know which he would go for when the time comes as a senior. "Light or heavy, it doesn't matter. There's no reason why I shouldn't take on heavies I've done it before."

After all, he will be taking on the heavies this Saturday and is not intimidated now.