Rowing: Oxford's refusal to buckle brings reward

Who said the Boat Race is a procession? Capping even the dramatic restart of 2001, this year's Varsity showdown delivered the most exciting contest for two decades, and an utterly gripping race. The times barely begin to tell the story – although Cambridge led at every marker, they never broke clear. The battle was balanced on a knife-edge the entire way, before Oxford rowed Cambridge down in the last half-minute, winning by two seconds: a mere 40-feet margin at the end of 4
1/
2 long miles.

Who said the Boat Race is a procession? Capping even the dramatic restart of 2001, this year's Varsity showdown delivered the most exciting contest for two decades, and an utterly gripping race. The times barely begin to tell the story – although Cambridge led at every marker, they never broke clear. The battle was balanced on a knife-edge the entire way, before Oxford rowed Cambridge down in the last half-minute, winning by two seconds: a mere 40-feet margin at the end of 4 1/ 2 long miles.

Victory, for Oxford, was a combination of training, planning, bloody-minded persistence, and luck, although it could hardly be called a perfect race. Time after time one crew gained a strategic edge, but could not capitalise, and it was not until the 14th minute that a decisive outcome looked possible.

The start, on wildly swinging stakeboats, caught Cambridge about to recorrect alignment, and although they recovered fast, Oxford took four seats within 20 seconds. Although Oxford should now have killed off the Cambridge challenge completely, they lost rhythm. The Light Blues recovered poise and speed, and, helped by excellent steering, rowed themselves back into a three-seat lead by the Milepost. They then let Oxford sit half a length down, instead of breaking clear. Around the long Hammersmith bend it should have been the Dark Blues' turn once again, but their pushes suffered as cox Peter Hackworth was forced to steer repeatedly and slightly off-stream by continuous umpire's warnings.

Ten minutes in, Cambridge had survived the famous Surrey bend, still held a short lead, and now the river turned in their favour. Surely this was their chance to stick the knife in? But four-man Sebastian Mayer had paid too high a price: as he lapsed into an exhausted daze, blade flailing, Cambridge were unable to change gear. With both eights utterly exhausted, it became a battle of wills. Oxford's Dan Perkins had been advised by coach Mick McKay "if all else fails, pull harder". As Perkins and Oxford did exactly that, they "asked the question", and Cambridge had no answer.

"When you're doing these races, you're only trying to break one guy," said the Oxford chief coach Sean Bowden. "It's eight against one, and the first guy that breaks in there, you're on him." Cambridge's coach, Robin Williams, recognised the tactics. "If you can push someone over the limit, that's what you try and do." Cambridge, winning the toss, chose Middlesex to give themselves the benefit of the final corner, but they cannot have imagined how much they would need it.

The rest made heroic history. Fifty years ago, Oxford rowed from behind around the final Mortlake bend, snatching victory by a canvas. Watching the grainy video the night before, the 2002 seven-man Robin Bourne-Taylor had told his crew, "I'd back myself to do that." As Oxford went through Barnes Bridge half a second down, President Ben Burch shouted "We're going to win this." With barely 20 strokes to go, Oxford were level, and storming through a Cambridge crew unable to match their sprint.

Oxford are demons for detail: they use the OmegaWave brain wave system to optimise each athlete's training, and this year copied the British Olympic eight, fixing Aerostripz tape down the blade shafts to decrease air resistance. The change improved their paddling speed by 1-2sec per 500m, though probably had less effect in racing. But none of that would have counted without their own determination. The Boat Race is about who can survive on the day. On Saturday, Oxford had the will to win, making it a triumphant seven-nil sweep for Dark Blue boats.

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