Boat Race: Holland defends annual row

Cambridge coach revels in ancient rivalry of Blues while keeping stroke with the times
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The Independent Online

It's a curious kind of existence, you suggest, particularly for a 54-year-old Kiwi: transforming a disparate collection of students, destined to become experts in their field – molecular biology, architecture, Euro-pean Union studies, genetics, economics in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, among others – into a cohesive waterborne force, capable of overcoming their historic English university rivals in the 154th Boat Race. But for Duncan Holland, a Hull-born New Zealander who was appointed as Cambridge'shead coach in late 2005, that is precisely its appeal.

"It's fascinating working with people who are trying to do two things, both at a very high level," he says. "It's a great challenge working with such rounded characters, who can perform sport while studying. I remember one of the boys, Tim Perkins, bounced into training one day. He works in genetics, in RNA sequencing, and he'd just had a world first that morning. And then we had to sit down and talk about how to make a rowing boat go faster..."

Holland, who has been training with his crew on the River Dee at Chester this week, adds: "I love the thrill of seeing a rowing boat move fast, and the art of attempting to make it go faster, and trying to mould that team of individuals into a winning crew. It's a constant balance between studying and training. But it is important that they remember whatever they are doing academically will impact throughout their lives, whereas rowing, though very nice and very important, is not their career. It's their recreation."

On the day, though, attitudes will be deadly serious. The crowds who flock to the banks of the Thames and the worldwide interest that TV coverage generates ensures that the event's fascination never wanes. It has gained Holland, whose three-year contract with the Light Blues expires this year, a recognition beyond Britain and New Zealand, his homeland since emigrating with his parents at the age of six.

"Once, on a visit to Thailand, I was having a discussion with a border guard," he says. "He saw that in my passport under occupation it read 'coach'. He said, 'Who do you coach?' 'Cambridge,' I replied. He said, 'Ah, the Boat Race'. It's not the kind of conversation you expect to have at three in the morning in Bangkok."

Holland, who rowed for his country, then coached in Switzerland and New Zealand before taking the Dutch women's eight to a bronze at the Athens Olympics, relishes organising a crew to do battle, not just with their opponents, but with the idiosyncrasies of the Thames. "The Tideway is intrinsically unfair," he says. "Most international rowing is done on straight six-lane courses, and the organisers strive for fairness.

"On the river, you have to just get on with it, deal with the winds, the currents, the bends and the bridges. That's fascinating for me, as is the gladiatorialnature of the race. In the Olym-pics, you can be happy with a fourth place, while we can only ever win or lose."

His eight are marginal favourites, with the score standing at 79-73 in favour of Cambridge. Though he describes his crew as "younger, smaller and less experienced than last year, when I had two current world champions and an Olympic champion in the crew", he confesses to being "quietly pleased" as they prepare to face an Oxford eight who include the 36-year-old former US Olympic rower Mike Wherley, the oldest oarsman ever to take part in the race.

It wouldn't be the Boat Race if it did not provoke the perennial debate over the lack of under-graduates (Cambridge's Tobias Garnett is the only one in either crew) and the number of international oarsmen. The Light Blues have five Britons in their crew, but the Dark Blues are deemed as having much in common with Arsène Wenger's Reds: quality performers, but a significant lack of home-bred talent.

Last year, it was Cambridge who were the recipients of disapproval when one of their two German internationals, Thorsten Engelmann, dropped out of his course shortly after the race. "We were disappointed, but if you look at the big picture in Britain, one in five students does drop out," says Holland, who rebuts criticism of the composition of the crews. "I think it's irrelevant because this race is between two villages," he insists. "It's defined by entry to two universities and we have no say on who achieves that. Cambridge has a changing environment, with many foreign and postgraduate students. It's no longer Brideshead Revisited, and we reflect that. I take a very pragmatic view. I see who turns up on the first day."

Some tough decisions invariably have to be made, and this year the Cambridge president, Dan O'Shaughnessy, has been relegated to Goldie, the second boat. "Of course Dan's bitterly disappointed about not being in the Blue Boat but he's still supporting it as much as he can and getting on with rowing in the Goldie crew," says Holland.

Apparently O'Shaughnessy did not throw his vest down, in the style of English footballers, when substituted. "No, we conduct ourselves with more discipline than that," says Holland, who adds, with a laugh: "I'm a rugby man – not surprisingly – but I've been watching a bit of English football recently, and it did occur to me that it might be nice to bring on a fresh pair of legs about Hammersmith Bridge."

Watch the Boat Race live next Saturday on ITV1, from 5.15pm