The Boat Race: Aussie makes light of the heavy omens

Appliance of science the key as the good doctor of Cambridge aims to turn the Tideway of history
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The Independent Online

Dr Tom Edwards came to Cambridge from Australia to study for a PhD and help advance the world's knowledge of medical genetics. By this afternoon, midway through the four miles of the 151st Boat Race, he may be wishing that his expertise and that of his crew is in applied sciences, psychology, mythology of the Thames Tideway, and, perhaps, by the evening, some homespun philosophy.

On a day which represents rather less the Corinthian spirit with which the Boat Race was originally imbued back in 1829, and more a contest between two Olympic-class crews, Edwards and his fellow Light Blues face a herculean task in opposing Oxford's heaviest-ever crew. Edwards's opposite number, rowing at No 2 for Oxford, Barney Williams - a member of the Canadian four narrowly defeated by Matthew Pinsent and Co in Athens - is 15st 6lb compared to his own 13st 8.5lb, and Williams's weight is modest compared with the gargantuan Dark Blue No 7, the New Yorker Jason Flickinger, who came close to damaging the scales at 16st 7.9lb.

Yet there are many students of the sport who believe that the appliance of Tideway science, some solid psychology, and, perhaps the key, the coaching of Robin Williams in his final Boat Race before joining the staff of the Amateur Rowing Association can dispel the adage that a good big 'un will always beat a good little 'un.

"I could compile a long list of rowers I've beaten in my career who've been heavier than me," says Edwards, 27, whose parents - Barry, also a doctor, and Cathy (she is the mayor of Clarence, the town on the opposite side of the River Derwent from Hobart) - have travelled over to watch the race, which is being televised by ITV for the first time. "Being heavy can sometimes be a disadvantage. It can conceal deficiencies in technique. That's why I'm not too fazed by Oxford. Anyway, as a group, we'd be quite keen to beat the heaviest crew in Boat Race history."

Edwards, who has rowed for Australia at junior and Under-23 level, contests the oft-repeated claim that he is only here for the cachet of being part of a great British tradition. "It annoys me that anyone thinks that people come here just to row in the Boat Race," says Edwards, who is conducting research into a group of genes which cause hereditary spinal-cord paralysis. "If I end up in a winning Boat Race crew but then fail in my studies, it's all been a waste of time."

A profound knowledge of the Tideway's idiosyncrasies is his coach's strength. Williams, who oversaw the Light Blues for the first time in 1995, has masterminded seven of the university's 10 victories in his period in charge, an era which has included the agonising one-foot defeat in 2003 and last year's controversial triumph, when an Oxford crew member was unseated after a clash of oars.

After this year's race, Williams will become the ARA's high-performance coach for women and lightweight men. "It'll be pretty hard to let go of the Boat Race," he says. "It's addictive. It's a very pure type of sporting challenge, being a private duel between two universities. Because of that, you can put every bit of emotion and thought into that simple task. My new job will be preparing people for World Cup regattas, world championships and the Olympics on a three- to four-year plan."

Williams, 45, and formerly a lightweight oarsman (a discipline in which the average weight per man must be less than 70kg), adds: "The fact there are now lightweight men's doubles and fours in the Olympics has driven the standard very high. Britain has found it difficult to compete on that level, so there's a tough job to be done there."

That decade of coaching the Light Blues has, Williams says, "taught me a lot about how to get the best out of people". He reflects: "It's strange, you'd think that everyone who walks through the door would be obsessed with the idea of being a Blue. Many are. But others don't give themselves much of a chance. You have to say to them, 'You could actually go all the way, become an international, and even a world or Olympic champion'. That's the fairytale, and it has happened."

Williams adds: "Kieran West is an obvious one. When he first turned up, he was pretty unfit and was quite overweight. He was young and immature in the competition sense. His was a three-year improvement curve like you've never seen in your life. He had 1997, '98 and '99 with us, and started off by rowing in Goldie [the reserve boat], in a losing crew. The Boat Race was a real springboard for him internationally, and he won a gold in the eight at Sydney. He returned to Cambridge in 2001 to row in the Boat Race again as president. For any coach, that gives you the biggest thrill."

Victory under daunting circumstances in his valedictory year would no doubt provide Williams with similar pleasure. In rehearsals, his men have already defeated the Dutch Olympic silver-medallist crew, the Polish eight and a German boat replete with internationals. Yet Oxford could conceivably be superior to all that trio.

"The fact is, they are heavier, massively heavier," says Williams. "But for the weight we've got, we are a really powerful crew. Less of our weight has to move our bulk. Theyhave to be powerful because they're so big. If they don't produce that power, I think we could have them."

Either way, the contest should be a compelling one, befitting a coach due to exchange his role of Old Man River to source of renewed British lighweight hope.

Oxford: R Bourne-Taylor* Age: 23. Weight: 14st 1.5lb; B Williams, 27, 15st 6lb; P Reed*, 23, 15st 7.7lb; J von Maltzahn*, 26, 15st 4.7lb; C Liw-ski, 24, 15st 10.7lb; M Blomquist, 23, 15st 2.1lb; J Flickinger, 27, 16st 7.9lb; A Triggs Hodge, 25, 16st 0lb. Cox: A Nethercott*, 27, 8st 7.7lb.

Cambridge: L Walton, 25, 12st 10.4lb; T Edwards, 27, 13st 8.5lb; H Adams, 24, 14st 1.3lb; S Buschbacher*, 26, 15st 8.7lb; S Schulte, 26, 15st 0.3lb; M Kleinz*, 28, 13st 7.2lb; T James*, 20, 13st 10.2lb; B Heidicker, 26, 13st 2.3lb. Cox: P Rudge, 23, 8st 8.8lb.

* denotes old Blue