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Rowing: Hackworth drives Maul to line in battle of trialists

Oxford's trial crews, topically and appropriately named Ruck and Maul, produced a spirited race on a bitter and murky tideway yesterday. Ruck had a casualty 24 hours before the race when the president, Sam McLennan, one of only three returning blues, was diagnosed under the weather and replaced by a fellow American, Montana Butsch from the University of Pennsylvania.

Ruck nevertheless took an early lead on the Middlesex station, and a fascinating battle was played out between two excellent coxes who have both accomplished famous victories in the boat race: Peter Hackworth of Maul in 2002 by a third of a length, and Acer Nethercott of Ruck this year by a foot.

At the mile post Nethercott's crew had stretched their lead to three-quarters of a length, but that is as far ahead as they got. Both crews were unsettled by a big swell caused by a cruiser, and approaching Hammersmith Maul drew level and got a nose in front as the boats shot the bridge.

Ruck almost drew level several times, but Hackworth jockeyed his boat along to a three-quarter length lead on the outside of the bend under Barnes Bridge. Between there and the finish Maul opened up not more than a third of a length of clear water, while Ruck tucked in behind and closed the gap, reaching the finish post only a length behind.

Oxford have far to go before the 150th Boat Race on 28 March. If they lack stars, they have three oarsmen with the experience of this year's incredible win, and a reasonable spread of reserves and newcomers. Despite both of yesterday's trial boats being unsettled for much of the way, there were no quitters on board, and the stern sections held things together tenaciously.

Maul: C Hayes (bow, Pembroke), N Tuppen (Pembroke), P Holland (St Catherine's), N Walter (Corpus Christi), P Reed (Wolfson), D Livingston (Christ Church), H Morris (Magdalen), J Tarrell (stroke, Christ Church), P Hackworth (cox, Oriel).

Ruck: J Matthews (bow, Balliol), S Parker (Magdalen), A Stubbs (Hertford), J Scrogin (Brasenose), M Butsch (St Edmond Hall), B Dixon (Pembroke), C Kennelly (Oriel), C Smith (stroke, St Catherine's), A Nethercott (cox, Univ).