Oxford's early taste of success

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The Independent Online

Oxford put one toe in the water at Putney yesterday to reverse the series of Boat Race defeats which stretches back seven years. Their old boys won the fifth Veterans' Boat Race by three lengths after a series of clashes and some unorthodox instructions from the umpire had threatened to bring the race to a halt.

The Dark Blues lost their No 6 man, Dr Tom Cadoux Hudson, when he was required to carry out brain surgery in Oxford. He was replaced by Colonel Paul Marsden, who said: "I had three minutes in me which proved just enough as we had half-a-length lead and in spite of the clashes we were fairly sure of staying ahead."

The conditions were benign with a gentle tail breeze but the crews were led very wide and out of the stream on the Fulham bend by a series of mystifying calls from the umpire, John Garrett. It made little difference, however, with both of the crews equally far out of the fast water.

The Boat Race crew for this Saturday suffered a small blow when their Yale-trained stroke man, Alex Reid, was taken out of the crew after waking up sick following the traditional dinner with the press. Reid's place was taken by Matt Smith and Mike Bonham moved up from Isis.

There is a case, if Reid does not recover fully in time for the race, for leaving Smith at stroke. He is the less experienced man, but he has already won a good deal including the Junior World Championships in a coxed four. He also has a lovely fluent style and is easy to follow. If the weather is as bad as forecast, and the Tideway cuts up rough, the heavier crew will have an advantage only if they can hold an efficient rhythm.

There is also the crucial aspect of which part of the four-and-a-half mile course the effort should be most intense. Yesterday there was a theory that Oxford will be best served if they can get off very quickly to gain a lead, however small, and then hold a sustainable rhythm for a couple of miles, so dictating the pace. In that case Reid could well be the better man for the tough run-in. He beat Harvard coming from behind, and is well used to side-by-side racing in bad conditions.

Cambridge ran into a different kind of trouble when the Blue Boat was pushed very close in a two-minute and then a three-minute race by Goldie, its own reserve crew. Both times the crews made a running start and built to race pace in three strokes. Goldie found the pace more quickly each time and led their seniors by a small margin after a minute. The Blues were able to claw back into contention and finished ahead by a third of a length in the first race and even less in the second.

This is not a complete surprise. The two Cambridge boats are very similar in size and weight and there has been some uncertainty in selection of key personnel. Richard Stokes, the Light Blue President and winning stroke with Goldie a year ago, was effusive in his praise for the boat from which he had been dropped at the crew announcement a month ago, only to pop up a fortnight later in the stroke seat with Bruce Cummings moving back to Goldie. With the differences this marginal, it is a sign of health that the coaches can produce crews so close in quality.

However, the recovery by the Blue Boat shows how well they can take the pressure. In their private match with Leander two weeks ago, they were raced all the way by a crew with Steve Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent in it, and as their coach, Robin Williams, put it: "We had our pants taken down." He added that they have used that race to learn how to hold it together under intense pressure and it shows.