The Dark Blues see the light at last

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The moment, when it came for Nick Robinson, was worth the wait. At the fourth time of asking, the Oxford president discovered the feeling of victory and all the years of defeat reduced his 6ft 5in frame to incoherence and tears of joy. Robinson celebrated Oxford's first victory in eight years in true Dark Blue fashion standing beneath Chiswick Bridge arms aloft before staging an impromptu tour of his crew, a feat of balance which mirrored a gripping 146th Boat Race.

"Oh my God," said Robinson as he went up to collect the £25,000 handsome new trophy presented by Aberdeen Asset Management. The trophy itself weighs 10kg, but Robinson lifted it as if made of air, so fast was the adrenaline flowing through his body. "I've waited four years for this and it's just a fantastic feeling," he said. But for Dan Snow, son of Peter Snow, and Toby Ayer, the bearded American, famed more for his juggling than for his rowing, this was sweet revenge. "What was the decisive moment?" Robinson reflected. "I can't think, there were so many. We just kept hanging in there. This was the toughest race of my life and there were times when I thought Cambridge were going to row away, but we just refused to lose."

After years of Cambridge domination, this was just the result, and just the race, this venerable and splendid sporting anachronism needed, a reminder of the mental and physical endeavours too often taken as routine. The margin of victory, three lengths, did not reflect the battle which both crews fought along the four miles and 374 yards of the course. Peter Snow could not have separated them on his swingometer as first Cambridge held a fractional advantage from the stake, then Oxford fought back and we waited for the decisive shift. In the following Oxford launch, Sean Bowden, the head coach, began to harbour thoughts of his first victory.

"I didn't know how good it would be," Bowden reflected. "We didn't row so well in the first minute and we seemed a bit vulnerable at a couple of moments. At the top of the island, Cambridge had a really good go at us and that was potentially very dangerous. We certainly won it the hard way."

One of the key changes Bowden made to the routine involved returning to London a week ahead of schedule to give their cox, the sub-5ft Kajsa McLaren, the maximum opportunity to reconnoitre the treacherous waters of the Tideway. The move paid off perfectly. For all the urgings of the Oxford launch behind, McLaren kept her nerve throughout, steered a perfect course round the Barnes bend when Cambridge must have presumed their superiority would tell and then engineered a precious length advantage as the spirit of the Cambridge crew finally broke barely half a mile from the finish.

"Kajsa steered a blinder," said Bowden. "She's worked so hard and has been so committed and it was great to see all the work paying off." Conditions, admittedly, favoured the heavier crew. In the weigh-in on Monday, Oxford had scaled 10lb a man heavier, though in Matt Smith, they had the lightest oarsman on the water. Yesterday, Smith became, at 18, the youngest ever member of a victorious Boat Race crew.

Whether the weight, and the extra power, told in the end is a matter for debate. But as the crews moved into the choppiest waters and the waves sluiced over the bows of the chasing launches, Oxford dug deep into their physical and mental reserves. Bowden talked afterwards of technique and experience, but more likely the fear of defeat that Robinson had expressed so quietly in the week before the race proved equally decisive.

The sunshine of the pre-race festivities had long since turned to driving rain and the wind whipped across the course as forecast. Perhaps Oxford's resident psychologist, Kirsten Barnes, herself a double Olympic gold for Canada, the first psychologist to work full-time with a Boat Race crew, had asked her crew to visualise this moment. But somehow Oxford emerged into the calmer waters near the bandstand before Barnes Bridge with their narrow lead intact. More significantly, they could feel Cambridge's spirit break as their advantage of the Surrey station they had chosen on winning the toss was nullified. Dan Snow, one of three old Blues, in the Oxford boat, put it best. "We just weren't going to lose," he said.

There had been a feeling in the week leading up to the 146th Boat Race that this one could be closer than the bookmakers odds on a Cambridge victory suggested. News of an unexpected victory for Isis, the Oxford second boat, filtered through to the start, sending ripples of hope through Oxford ranks. For once, Cambridge's preparations seemed a little dishevilled, with Richard Stokes restored to the stroke position a mere fortnight before the race. Not many had predicted that this would turn into an epic, decided by Oxford's refusal to suffer further ignominy.

For Cambridge, the finish brought an unfamiliar feeling of emptiness. Josh West's head slumped on to his knees, while ahead of them Oxford celebrated in style. But it was the big American, on his 23rd birthday, who was first to congratulate the victors. It will be of little comfort to Cambridge that the race needed a shift in the balance of power or that Robinson spared a thought for the vanquished in the midst of his own euphoria. "Their president has to stand up at the dinner tonight and explain to the old Blues why they lost the Boat Race," he said. "Yes, I have some sympathy. I know how painful that feels."