Priest of Blues' brotherhood

The Boat Race: Oxford's band of losers are pulling together in the painful search for a brighter tomorrow
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The Independent Online

Nick Robinson's ambitions have shifted. Last year, he wanted to climb Everest and fly fighter planes; this year,according to the biographical notes for the 146th Boat Race, sailing round the world is his chosen adventure. As hisinterests also include skiing, climbing, surfing and Scandinavian culture, the Italian-speaking president of the Oxford University Boat Club should be easily identifiable on the Tideway. He will be the one in the red cape with the capital "S" on his T-shirt. He also has what he calls a "dodgy" first in chemistry.

This Saturday, a simple, modest victory over Cambridge would give him a preview of what it feels like to stand on top of the world. Three years in a row - twice in the Blue boat, once in Isis, the Second VIII - Robinson has endured a desolation row from Putney to Chiswick. And now it is starting to get personal. Neither his stiff upper lip nor his gentle demeanour could cope with a fourth defeat, not least because this year as president he will carry the ultimate responsibility for failure.

"It gets worse each year," he says. "Last year, I just remember taking our boat off the water after losing in the Isis boat, wandering upstairs and glancing at the television to see the Blue boat losing too. That's about as low as it can get. I couldn't watch any more, I just went off."

The other evening the arrival of the BBC cameras to pre-record interviews for the day triggered reflection on his own deepening relationship with the race. He was enjoying himself, he had said that first year, but rowing was not the be- all and end-all of his life.

At the time, he meant it. Not now. Defeat has eroded the enjoyment and unbalanced the emotional equation; fun is no longer the word that comes readily to mind when the mornings are dark, the wind is chill and the reason for pushing your mangled body through another training session has temporarily slipped from view. He is still enjoying himself, he adds, but it is the instinct for self-preservation that arrows him towards a final tilt at the Light Blues.

"The fear of losing can become as powerful a motivating force as looking forward to winning," he says. "It comes back to the cavemen. You're being chased by a lion and if you don't run away, you'll die. Your motivational force is greater if your life is at stake. That's how it is to some of the guys.

"A few days afterwards you might say, 'Well, what's the Boat Race?' but beforehand it's definitely a case of, 'If I don't win this, I'm in trouble and I'm going to turn into some weird person who follows Oxford every year, every outing, every day, until they win'."

There is no escaping the grisly reality of recent Dark Blue history. Defeat after painful defeat, stretching back to the early days of the Major Years, a sequence peculiarly immune to the laws of probability. Surely, somewhere along the line, Oxford must get it right and Cambridge have an off year? There is no sign of it.

Countless plans have been shredded; numerous ambitions thwarted. The expected shift of power failed to materialise 12 months ago when a starstudded Oxford boat was beaten by a younger, more technically proficient and mentally tougher Cambridge crew.

"We had our eyes opened then," Robinson recalls. "We thought we were going to win the race and after we lost, it was a shock. We thought: 'Well, if that crew can't win, how the hell are we ever going to win again?' "

This time, partly because of Olympic year, partly out of choice, Robinson and the Oxford coaches, headed by Sean Bowden, have opted for a youth policy, nurturing a hard core of talent which will form the basis of a crack crew, if not this year, then somewhere down the line.

"It's not a conscious decision," Robinson says. "These are just the best guys around." Matt Smith, a fellow product of the prolific Hampton School, who won gold in the coxed four at the 1999 Junior World Championships is, at 18, the third youngest oarsman to row in the race, Andrew Dunn, from Eton, is 19.

Robinson's own experiences have made him a student of the complex dynamics of the rowing crew. He calls the 1999 Isis boat the "model bad crew"; too many chiefs, not enough Indians. His emphasis this year, communicated firmly but quietly, has been on team spirit, on establishing the sort of trust Cambridge have displayed to notable effect during their recent hegemony. In a rowing boat with significant intellectual capacity on board the faintest hint of a fault line can be magnified, day after day, outing after outing, into a chasm of mistrust the size of the Grand Canyon.

"Towards the end of a race when you're in a lot of pain and when the brain starts working in a different way, it is really important that the crew trust each other," says Robinson. "All you can see is the back of the guy in front and you can easily start to think: 'I bet he's not pulling as hard as I am'. You do get that if a crew doesn't come together."

His first crew, in 1997, was divided down the middle: front IV v stern IV, experienced international graduates v young new boys. "If you get too many dominant personalities in the boat, it can be very dangerous." Robinson's own quiet style of leadership, a neat counterpoint to the more ebullient character of Dan Snow, masks a ruthless streak. Chris Nilsson, a New Zealander hired to strengthen the coaching team, was dispatched without sentiment, one of several friendships potentially sacrificed to the interests of one of sport's most precious anachronisms.

With 10 days to go before his final fling, Robinson talks gently about the peculiar pressures of a day he knows well but can never entirely absorb. Only Ireland's Gaelic Football final, where missing the match-winning score is a social stigma, pitches true amateurs into a more forbidding setting.

The Boat Race, sponsored for the second year by Aberdeen Asset Management, is not quite so parochial, but still shapes lives. Defeat by a Leander crew recently suggested that Oxford's troubles may not be over, and they will certainly start as underdogs again. After all the drum-beating of the last few years, this is an unpretentious crew, reflecting the quiet determination of their president. Cambridge will underestimate them at their peril.

The one fear for Robinson is that another defeat will propel him into the abyss, into that identikit picture of the weirdo and the blazered fogey who relives his disappointment each springtime on the Tideway. Climbing Everest or sailing round the world might yet become necessities more than options.