Rowing: Pinsent and Cracknell prepare for fight as the pack closes in

Matthew Pinsent, now 32, has won a world or Olympic gold medal every year since 1991, plus an extra world gold in 2001 when he and James Cracknell triumphed in both the coxed and coxless pairs. Yesterday Pinsent returned to where it all started, for it was here in 1988 that he won his first international title, a junior gold coxless pairs medal with Tim Foster.

Fifteen years ago the Idroscalo course was blisteringly hot and humid, just as it was breathless and baking yesterday. This time Pinsent is equipped with an ice jacket to cool down and has a ton of experience to add to his attempt, not just to maintain his record of a title every year, but to qualify his boat for next year's Athens Olympics, for which these World Championships are a qualifying regatta.

Olympic qualification adds an extra edge for all the crews in Olympic events, and for Pinsent and Cracknell - winner of an Olympic or world gold every year since 1997 - it is also the opportunity to lay their personal ghost of Idroscalo which arose when they lost to Croatia and Italy here in the first round of this year's World Cup.

After that they won the second round in Munich and the Silver Goblets at Henley, and here they are again among the titans. Having broken the world record in Seville last year, they are still the crew to topple, but the difference now is that there are more chasers, and the chasers are closing in.

In yesterday's first round they took their feet off the throttle as soon as a substantial lead was established, as was the case with the other five heat winners, all of whom qualified for the semi-finals on Thursday. Here things could get nasty, for there are three semi-finals from which two crews pass to Saturday's finals. "When they put other heat winners with us in the semi we will find out how we are really going," Cracknell said.

Among the winners were the Australians Drew Ginn and James Tomkins who upset Cracknell and Pinsent's unbeaten record last year by beating them in the final of the World Cup. They are fresh from their Melbourne training waters, untested internationally but winning their heat without too much trouble. The Skellin brothers, of Croatia, bronze medallists in 2002, rediscovered the form which they lost this year at Henley. The South Africans Ramon Di Clemente and Donovan Cech, silver medallists last year and beaten by the British pair at Henley, also cruised home, as did the Italians Giuseppe De Vita and Dario Lari, World Cup winners this year.

The fastest semi-finalists, after being pushed by New Zealand, were Wayne Pommen and Scott Frandsen, of Canada, who perhaps have the most to prove. Frandsen finished seventh in this event last year with a different partner. He was a member of the Oxford crew who won this year's Boat Race by a foot, while Pommen was the Cambridge oarsman who was injured two days before the Boat Race and lost his seat, but is now Cambridge's president for next year's race.

Four other British crews qualified for semi-finals and three others for tomorrow's repêchages, while seven others face heats today. The coxless four of Steve Williams, Josh West, Toby Garbett and Rick Dunn, silver medallists last year, had their race well in hand and mastered the feared Slovenians for the semi-final place. Germany, Italy and Canada cruised home in the other heats.

Matthew Wells and Ian Lawson won one of six heats in the double sculls and have a good chance of hitting the medal zone, but the stakes are high. Only two qualify for finals from the three semi-finals, and the Hungarian world champions were bounced into a repêchage by the French crew. The women's double Debbie Flood and Rebecca Romero finished second to reach a semi-final, and the 33-year-old lightweight sculler, Tom Kay, a late entry to the team, dominated his heat.

The women's pair Katherine Grainger and Cath Bishop were beaten by the 2002 bronze medallists Yuliya Bichyk and Natallia Helakh of Belarus. This was the fastest heat, the others being won by the Romanian reigning champions and the Canadians who won at the Lucerne regatta last month.

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