Rowing: Oxford master Dark Blue arts to harness power with talent

Crew assembled from many nationalities look ready to provide a rare cohesion
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The Independent Online

Today's Boat Race promises a gruelling duel between powerbrokers, whatever the weather. Oxford and Cambridge spent the week familiarising themselves with the Putney to Mortlake course and testing in atrocious conditions. Near-disaster struck Cambridge on Thursday when their No 7, Ryan Monaghan, suffered a back twinge and was dropped in the afternoon. But yesterday he was reinstated for rigorous rough-water tests and pronounced fit to row by the coach, Chris Nilsson.

Monaghan, who rowed for Cambridge last year, knew what to expect. At the crew announcement a few weeks ago the American said his coach was "beating us into the ground and hoping we don't get injured, giving us a day to recover and doing it over again. It's both scientific and mental preparation. You have to be tough as nails to get through it".

Oxford's treatment of waves along Putney Reach, the start of the course, was masterly. They are an exceptionally heavy and tall crew who move their bodies in unison as well as their blades, an unfamiliar Dark Blue trait of late. You would not believe that such a smooth unit has been created out of a bunch of individuals from Poland, Croatia, Holland, New Zealand, Britain and the United States.

Oxford are powerful and have harnessed their talents – five of them rowed in Beijing. They have won all four of their side-by-side encounters. But they should not, and probably do not, feel safe. Cambridge have no Olympians but do have several former junior and Under-23 inter-nationals who will be likely to strut their stuff in London in 2012.

Under their assistant coach, Rob Baker, they trounced Oxford's crews in the Fours Head of the River Race in November. The eight's results in match races are mixed, losing to Leander and finishing one-all against the Tideway Scullers "Great Eight", who toppled Leander in the Head of the River Race. So Cambridge can move, too. In even worse weather than Oxford encountered, they started two lengths behind their reserves, Goldie, and caught them by the Black Buoy, an impressive if water-shipping exercise that required cool heads and steady-as-a-rock control.

In the coaching department, Sean Bowden is in his 10th year with Oxford while the New Zealander Nilsson is new to Cambridge. But he is not new to the Boat Race, having worked as assistant to Bowden in the 1990s, as well as boasting an impressive CV with the New Zealand and US teams.

Both crews have men who have done this before. Colin Smith, Oxford's president and a silver medal winner in the British eight in Beijing, is described by his coach as reassuring under pressure. "He's a grafter," says Bowden. "He battled against selection to prove himself as a worthy international rower. Never makes an excuse."

Smith says: "The best thing has been seeing two trial crews come together from being not a squad to a really good squad. Sean is more about shaping than I am, but it's fantastic to be at the helm of these people and to see them shaping up in the way that they are. It's been a completely crazy year for me so far since the Olympics, and it's all going to come down to today's result. That will make or break the year."

Henry Pelly, Cambridge's president, feels different about the race than he did in 2008. "Last year I was probably the strongest man in the crew at seat racing. This year I'm one of many rather than top of the pile."

Cambridge's one advantage is a cox who is very experienced on this tidal course. Rebecca Dowbiggin steered them to victory by a length and a quarter in 2007 and lost by six lengths last year, when Cambridge ran out of wind halfway. This boat, she says, "has flashes of really, really good stuff".

But flashes will not be enough, and she cannot do much if Oxford pull the heavier Colin Groshing out into the lead in the first mile. Groshing learned his coxing on the Schuylkill in Philadelphia, a totally different kettle of fish to the Thames. "I realise my job is so mental that I need to be as sharp as ever," he says. "My mind is my greatest asset. They trust me to make good decisions for them." This may be a case of "Let the best minds win".

The Boat Race will be shown on 1TV1 today, starting at 3.40pm