Rowing: Acer in the pack inspires Oxford's Boat Race crew

 

When Oxford University's 18-metre vessel appears from Westminster Boat House today, etched on to its bow in black print will be the name Acer. It is only a small emblem but its resonance bears a fuller story: a warming tribute to a former cox, Acer Nethercott.

The Oxford old boy, who died in January this year aged just 35, was regarded as one of the best coxes of his generation. Nethercott's first sport was cycling. He took up recreational coxing for his Oxford college and became a master of the craft, coxing in three Boat Races and winning Olympic silver in the men's eight in Beijing.

His spirit was manifested in a bid to break into the London 2012 squad after being diagnosed in 2010 with glioblastoma multiforme, a form of brain cancer. However, the effects of chemotherapy meant he did not have the edge for international competition. But when Oxford's crew take oar at 4.30pm with the four miles and 374 yards between Putney and Mortlake ahead of them, the memory of Acer will inspire his old boat.

"In reality it will only be a small part," said Sean Bowden, Oxford's coach since 1998. "The guys are extremely well prepared and know how to handle themselves. But these extra bits – connections with the club and history – are bound to have some impact."

Nethercott went to Mark Hall Comprehensive School in Essex before competing in his first Boat Race in 2003. Oxford's crew were lighter by 7kg per man and considered the underdogs but won by a fine margin, just one foot.

John Adams, now 30, a member of that crew, said: "He inspired a great deal of confidence because the way that he spoke gave you the sense that he had it covered.

"We had this big 1963 call. That was our do-or-die move. We'd identified that 1963 was the last time that a crew with the same weight deficit had overturned it to victory.

"So at the point where we were about to go out the back door, Acer pulled it out. The rest was history, we threw the kitchen sink at it.

"He was operating in a world which was pretty dominated by public school boys. That's the nature of Oxbridge rowing, so he was set apart, and had that peculiar role which each cox fills in their own way. He liked to have a laugh, he was fun- loving and always up for a debate, definitely the intellectual. He was much cleverer than all the rest of us, a proper scholar."

While Nethercott is remembered by Oxford for his victories in 2003 and 2005, it was 2004, when they lost by six lengths, that the cox really captured the country's imagination. "Come on! They are all over the place! They've fucking gone!" he barked repeatedly over the BBC coverage. Cambridge had broken away after each had taken chunks out of the other's boat but, despite the infamous rallying call, Oxford lost.

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