Three years ago, Howard Martin was watching the Boat Race on television. Though he had never rowed before, he liked what he saw. On Saturday, he will become the first time-served joiner to win his Blue.
Cambridge's crew, unveiled alongside their opponents at yesterday's weigh-in, revolves around the gigantic presence of Josh West, a 6ft 9in oarsman from the desert town of Santa Fe who is sandwiched between the very orthodox Tom Stallard from Oundle - and Martin, who is finding it strange being at the heart of the Boat Race hullaballoo.
"I left school at 16 with no sort of A levels or anything, and got a start as an apprentice in a joinery firm closing at 19 with all the City and Guilds qualifications you can get with a piece of wood," Martin says. "I loved it and was very interested in building, but got a bit fed up with being told what to do all the time."
By that time, Martin had followed his father - who was capped a few times in the second row for England - to play either open or blind side for Bedford Under-21s. His father suggested that following his apprenticeship with a season playing New Zealand rugby might help, so he spent 10 months playing for Lincoln in Christchurch.
"When I came back I wanted to do more learning and moved to Leicester where I began an HND in building studies at De Montfort University and switched to Leicester RFC Under-21s." That took another two years, after which he signed on for an undergraduate degree in Land Management.
He made the draft from the Under-21 squad to the senior side at Leicester but discovered that, at 6ft 4in and 13st 10lb, he was not in the main frame for progress - and, in any case, he was not at ease with the professional game. As his rugby doubts were forming he switched on the television for the 1997 Boat Race.
"I was inspired by the absolute commitment I saw. The faces at the end expressing absolute elation or despair. I signed up with Leicester Boat Club and started splashing about on the water. I was captivated and couldn't get enough of it. They tested me when I first got there and because of the rugby training and because I had used an ergometer before I got a better result than the rest of the novices."
When he finished the degree course at De Montfort he was ready to go back to work, but his father, who had three rugby Blues from Cambridge in the late 1960s, was encouraging him to apply for postgraduate work in Land Economy. He kept his sporting interest quiet. "I wanted to get in on academic merit and thought to mention my sporting aspiration was the wrong thing to do."
He was accepted to Trinity Hall and, in spite of still being tempted to go back to rugby, the rowing bug was too deeply ingrained and he went, full of diffidence, to the opening tests at the Goldie Boat House with no expectations of making the grade. "I was overawed," he said. "There were 50 faces with the likes of Josh West and Tom Stallard who had done it all. I was sure it wouldn't last."
He stuck it out and the coaches say now that his honesty in training and enthusiasm meant they had him marked out from the earliest days. The task was to teach him to row efficiently and within the rhythm they long ago established as the best solution to the problem of uniting the wandering scholars who turn up each autumn hoping to start the Boat Race six months later. Martin set short-term goals as the first term progressed. "I wanted to row for Cambridge in the Fours Head. Then I wanted to get into a Trial eight. Then I wanted to make the cut for the Christmas training camp in Banyoles. Then I thought maybe I could make Goldie, the reserve crew."
He was being coached now, and by some very famous names. "We had Robin Williams and Ian Dryden, the two Cambridge professionals, as well as visits from Donald Leggett and the New Zealander Harry Mahon and Tim Maclaren, the national team coach for Australia."
All this after nothing very much at Leicester left him frustrated. "All these guys were trying to tell me what to do, each using a slightly different way of expressing it." He found the way forward was to ask and to watch as much as possible on the videos - and to believe the coaches when they said he would make the top boat.
"In rugby there is a certain amount about how to get your legs working in the tight and body angles in the mauls and so on, but this is much more specific," he said. "You spend a lot of time on the mechanics of propelling the boat."
For now he is entirely concentrated on Saturday at 4.10pm, when the race will start with him at No 4, the very heart of the Light Blue ship. "I'm loving every minute of this but I'm 27 now and able to live this life thanks to my girlfriend, who is a police officer in Leicester. I know it can't go on for ever."
As Robin Williams said of him: "This is one guy who is not here for the taking part but for a win. If he doesn't get a win this Saturday, then he's not likely to quit until he does."
Despite their recent dominance, Martin's team have reverted to basics. The Sydney Olympics have stripped both crews of their heavyweight internationals, with Cambridge fielding only three overseas oarsman, including West, the tallest competitor in the race's history. The champions' average weight is a mere 13st 9lb, making them the lightest crew in nine years.
"Weight wins" has been the gospel of this race since it began, but the adage is little more than a myth borne out in only 56 per cent of the 145 races since 1839. This year, Oxford have an advantage of a shade under 11 pounds a man. The last crew to win against this margin was Oxford in 1989, so they, at least, will not be convinced that weight alone is enough.
The points of difference between the two crews have been hard to pick out from watching the crews in training. They prowl the Tideway circulating in opposite directions like recent divorcees round the enclosure at Ascot. The key feature is that there are no world-class rowers in either camp and the crews are much closer in performance on the key indicators, such as the dry-land rowing ergometers. The coaches are forced to develop cohesion and rhythm to create speed in place of sheer power. In looking for that cohesion, the coaches at least have the advantage of the usual crop of British public schoolboys, who have been brought up in broadly similar regimes.
The Cambridge president, Richard Stokes, secured a last-ditch place in the Light Blues' crew. He had failed to make the final selection when the crews were announced last month, but a sudden improvement in form forced a rethink, and Stokes replaces Bruce Cummings at No 2.
HOW THE CREWS SHAPE UP FOR THE 146th VARSITY BOAT RACE
A G G Dunn (Lincoln) Age: 19, 6ft 4in, 13st 6lb N J Robinson (Lincoln) 21, 6ft 5in, 14st 6.5lb B J Burch (Pembroke) 20, 6ft 5in, 14st 8.5lb M J Smith (St Catherine's) 18, 6ft 1.5in, 12st D R Snow (Balliol) 21, 6ft 6.5in, 15st 9.5lb T H Ayer (US, Worcester) 24, 6ft 5in, 15st 12.5lb E B Lilledahl (Nor, Nuffield) 25, 6ft 4in, 14st 13lb A Reid (US, Lincoln) 23, 6ft 4in, 14st 5lb Cox: K McLaren (Pembroke) 19, 4ft 10.5in, 7st 1lb
R P Cantwell (Peterhouse) 20, 6ft 3in, 12st 9lb J J O'Loghlen (NZ, Emmanuel) 26, 6ft 3in, 13st 4lb R A Ehlers (SA, St John's) 25, 6ft 5.5in, 14st 5lb H N F Martin (Trinity) 27, 6ft 4.5in, 13st 10.5lb A J West (US, Gonville & Caius) 22, 6ft 9.5in, 15st 4lb T A Stallard (Jesus) 21, 6ft 3.75in, 13st 2.5lb D J Tweddie (Trinity) 22, 6ft 5in, 13st 4lb R P Stokes (Trinity) 21, 6ft 1in, 13st 2lb Cox: G J Glassman (Trinity) 22, 5ft 7in, 7st 5lbReuse content