Rowing: Blues set for trial of power and technique

The Boat Race: Closest contest for years anticipated as strong crews from Oxford and Cambridge prepare to tussle on the Thames

The weather is set fair, the Thames Barrier will remain open, and the crews are ready. Six months of preparation are finished, and the training all done: hours of work in the gym and on the river put in for each stroke they will row today as, for the 148th time, Oxford race Cambridge from Putney to Mortlake on the River Thames.

The weather is set fair, the Thames Barrier will remain open, and the crews are ready. Six months of preparation are finished, and the training all done: hours of work in the gym and on the river put in for each stroke they will row today as, for the 148th time, Oxford race Cambridge from Putney to Mortlake on the River Thames.

The question which everyone wants answered is: "who will win?" A better question might be: "where should I watch from?"

Both university crews this year are much improved, suggesting the race might be close for much longer and possibly undecided until well past Hammersmith Bridge.

For the last decade there has been a clear divide in style between the two camps, and this year is no exception. Cambridge row with deliberate fluency, aspiring to the technical excellence allied with power which brought the British Olympic eight success in Sydney.

Their emphasis is on not wasting energy which could be used to move the boat, and for that reason they feel they can survive a hard first mile and still have a change of gear available. If Cambridge had an Achilles heel last year it was their relaxed start, but strokeman Rick Dunn clearly means business, blasting his eight off like greyhounds on every practice.

"It's not like you've got a heat, then maybe a repechage and semi-final," explains his seven-man Stu Welch. "You've never raced them before, you don't know what they're like, you only get one shot at it. If you stuff that start it's all over. We won't be giving anything away on the day."

Last year, of course, Cambridge did get a second shot. Led from the off by Oxford, early clashing resulted in the wake-up call the Light Blues had needed, and they capitalised on their second chance. Oxford know their opponents do not intend to rely on having this kind of luck again, and both crews will have their foot to the floor from the first stroke.

The Oxford approach is no less technical than Cambridge, but their style puts more emphasis on sharp drive and acceleration, a method which will suit their powerful, aggressive crew. Luke McGee, rowing at five, finds it as effective as the American technique he is used to. "It's a little less punchy on the legs, and looking for a bit longer in the water", he says, "but it's obviously competitive."

This is one of the strongest Dark Blue eights for years, and they are neat and well-drilled, coping easily with the rough, swelling water the Tideway regularly offers. Several of the crew return from last year's débâcle, and while pure competition may motivate the newcomers, Oxford's stern three have revenge in mind.

If there are clashes again this year, the smart money would be on Oxford to gain ground. Sadly, "clean" Boat Races are relatively rare. The speed and precision of both crews is often marred by the coxes wrangling over the quickest stream line. Decisive clashes can strike within strokes: a crew's rhythm is broken, and the other crew moves ahead, the race lost rather than won. Simon Harris, this year's umpire, wields no sanctions outside disqualification, and must rely on his authority over the two coxes to keep them apart. To that end he has umpired them both in earlier trials races, and steered them over the course together on Monday to demonstrate his favoured line.

Clashes aside, this could be onet of the closest races since Oxford rowed Cambridge down around the long Hammersmith bend 10 years ago. Since then, Oxford have tried repeatedly to match the fluent speed Cambridge first found in 1993. The 2002 Dark Blues might just be able to do it, and their power and aggression will not easily be beaten. But they are up against a Light Blue eight with no visible signs of weakness, who know exactly how they are going to win this race.

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