Rowing: Williams the innovator seeks glorious send-off

Robin Williams, the trim 45-year-old former lightweight international who has been the chief coach at Cambridge since 1995, moves on next week to take charge of the British lightweight squad's Olympic and world programme. "The change is exciting," he says, "but I'm sad to leave the Boat Race behind. It's the highest profile rowing event, and this year has been particularly enjoyable."

Robin Williams, the trim 45-year-old former lightweight international who has been the chief coach at Cambridge since 1995, moves on next week to take charge of the British lightweight squad's Olympic and world programme. "The change is exciting," he says, "but I'm sad to leave the Boat Race behind. It's the highest profile rowing event, and this year has been particularly enjoyable."

Williams arrived in Cambridge when the technical quality was good. "When I came there was electricity from the '93 and '94 crews. We won in '95 and it seemed like the normal thing to happen," he says.

He followed that with four more consecutive wins, working with the late, great Harry Mahon on his coaching team and gaining a reputation of bringing a crew to its peak when the umpire says "go".

His sixth and seventh Cambridge wins were races of incident, the 2001 event being restarted after a clash and the 2004 race marred by a clash at the mile post. In 2003, Cambridge lost by a foot in the most dramatic race so far in 150 contests.

In this bruising confrontation, seven wins out of 10 attempts is not a bad record, prodding Oxford's rowing manager, Steve Royle, to say that the Dark Blues will be glad to see the back of him.

Williams breaks the task of trying to make his last Boat Race his eighth win into two essentials: orientating his oarsmen to this unique match race, and letting the strengths of the crew determine how they will row it.

This post-Olympic season, Williams has newcomers from Germany, Tasmania and the United States. At the beginning of the year he takes every opportunity to get his men on to the Tideway by sending crews to the Fours Head of River race and spending a couple of weekends working eights side by side, leapfrogging into and out of the stream to give them a feel for the currents and how to use the river.

The course, the race, the tradition and the challenge is quite different from anything these internationals have experienced. The stroke, Bernd Heidicker, says: "When Robin told us we had done something well when I first arrived here, that is the first time in seven years on the German team that I have received praise. In Germany rowing is mostly physical and physiological. Here there is more emphasis on technique."

In Cambridge they have a giant map of the Putney to Mortlake course, and they break the four and a quarter miles into segments. "When I arrived, basic pace could win you the race, but now it is unlikely to win it on its own," Williams says. "To understand the Boat Race is to understand why you can't row in the comfort zone. It calls for judgment during the race to turn a half chance into a full chance. You can't make assumptions. You have to know your plan for each segment of the race."

He notes that the recent Oxford winners, stroked by Matt Smith, have raised the bar by taking the base rating from 34 to 36 strokes to the minute over the course. This year Cambridge's trials showed Williams that he had two exceptional eights. He made the selection early in February to give himself six to eight weeks to allow the crew to come together, interspersed with two tough Tideway fixtures. They impressed in both, particularly by rowing through the German national squad on the outside of a bend a fortnight ago.

Williams leaves behind a set-up which, he believes, is now second to none. He uses visiting experts such as Martin McElroy, the coach of Britain's 2000 Olympic champion eight, Donald Legget, a two-days-a-week "walking almanac" of the club, Alan Inns for crucial coxing skills, Chris Shambrook for psychology and Tim McLaren, of Sydney University of Technology, to coach alongside him in the final week. Mark Fangen-Hall and Rob Baker are full-time assistant coaches with Baker doubling as boatman, and the physiotherapist Gill Keane and the executive secretary, Dick Pryce-Jones, complete the full timers.

Another German in the crew, Matthias Kleinz, puts his finger on the secret of Williams's success. "Here the professional coaches still have a passion for the sport," he says. "The technical ability and the versatility is good. They think about it 24/7."

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