Rowing: Golden pair lead Britain forward

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The Independent Online

The illnesses which floored James Cracknell, of the coxless four, and Frances Houghton, of the quadruple scullers, at the second round of the World Cup neatly illustrated how fickle the business of crew formation and performance is. Cracknell's head cold on Saturday morning turned what was meant to be the explosive arrival of a crew of world-beaters onthe Olympic stage into a farce. Houghton's virus on Thursday made substitute Sarah Winckless a hero when she survived three rounds in two events and won silver medals in both.

Cracknell's absence was an irritant for a crew which has been frustrated by changes of seats and minor illnesses, but it bears no significance on their potential for glory in Athens. Winckless' success shows that the women's sculling crews are flexible and dependable and in the medal zone, along with Katherine Grainger and Cath Bishop in the coxless pair, who won gold here.

The Munich results ran the gamut of success and failure, of careful planning and chance glitches that can hit coaches and management at any time. Six finalists in Olympic events produced gold for the women's pair, silvers for the women's double and quadruple scullers, fourth place for the men's eight, sixth for the lightweight double scullers, Helen Casey and Tracy Langlands, and two good races for the coxless four, until Cracknell took to his bed.

The coxless pair of Toby Garbett and Rick Dunn and the double scullers Matt Wells and Matt Langridge should have reached finals but did not, and the men's lightweight boats are in the doldrums, the four ranking 12th and the best double scullers 10th. The men's heavyweight quad stayed at home because of illness.

David Tanner, the international rowing manager, said that the important thing about mishaps is not that they happen, but how you deal with them. "We think it is good to race through the season," he said. "Part of our strength of approach is that crews have experienced full regattas and are prepared if something goes wrong in Athens. We continue our policy of using the next best sub available to keep a crew in the regatta."

In the Cracknell case there was a choice between Ed Coode, who rowed successfully in the four in the first World Cup regatta, or Tom Stallard from the second-string coxless four, whose regatta was completed the night before. Stallard was chosen because Coode is now an anchor man in the seven seat of the eight. "His energy and psychology would be missing from the eight on a day when they had the opportunity to show progress," Tanner said. In the women's boats there were no spares on the team, so the only option was to ask someone to double up.

The British team qualified 10 boats for the Olympics at the World Championships last year, so what remains in contention until the crews for Athens are announced on 24 June is who sits in which boat. Between now and then is the third and final round of the World Cup, in Lucerne in three weeks' time.

Gold medals in Athens look tantalisingly close for the coxless four and the women's pair. Matthew Pinsent, stroke of the four, said that they are not good enough to win yet, but that they are excited about the speed they achieved in the heat and semi-final with Cracknell on board. They were certainly close to the Canadians - the 2003 world champions - who won on Saturday.

In the case of of the pair, Grainger and Bishop beat the Romanians three weeks ago and defeated the Americans and Canadians this weekend. Only Belarus have not shown up this season, and were a force to be reckoned with last year.

Of the other men's crews, the eight is now rowing well, but the Canadians are in a class of their own, beating the revamped German crew by a length and the Dutch and British by more than three. The Americans and Romanians could also be a danger here. Garbett and Dunn have some work to do in the pair, but their coach, John West, said that despite not reaching the last six they are only five seconds off the winning South Africans, world bronze medallists last year. The winners in Munich were the Italians, with the 2003 silver and gold medallists - Croatia and Australia respectively - absent but no doubt dangerous.