The day the Dark Blues saw red

Cambridge prevail over protesting Oxford after umpire Obholzer orders restart for first time in race history

When it comes to the Boat Race, Rupert Obholzer and controversy are snug bedmates. As a victorious Oxford competitor in the 1991 event, Obholzer raised an eyebrow or three by offering a middle finger to the vanquished Cambridge crew. That paled yesterday, though, when the 31-year-old, installed as umpire - and at the request of Cambridge, incidentally - halted the race after a minute because of a clash of oars and restarted it, Oxford complained later, to Cambridge's advantage.

When it comes to the Boat Race, Rupert Obholzer and controversy are snug bedmates. As a victorious Oxford competitor in the 1991 event, Obholzer raised an eyebrow or three by offering a middle finger to the vanquished Cambridge crew. That paled yesterday, though, when the 31-year-old, installed as umpire - and at the request of Cambridge, incidentally - halted the race after a minute because of a clash of oars and restarted it, Oxford complained later, to Cambridge's advantage.

"What a nightmare," Obholzer muttered at the Mortlake finish. It was a nightmare certain to continue into the early hours of this morning since he attended an Old Blues anniversary dinner at the Dorchester last night. "I'll have to go," he said, with a failed attempt at a grin. "I've told them the cheque was in the post." Oxford's coach, Sean Bowden, was certainly peeved about the incident, claiming that the stoppage had robbed his crew of the early advantage they had gained. Obholzer explained his hoisting of the red flag, the first time this has ever happened in 147 Boat Races: "It didn't go very well from the start because the crews came together quite quickly. They clashed, and I warned Cambridge. Then I warned Oxford and as I was doing this the Cambridge guy [bow Colin Swainson] lost his blade. It was clear Oxford were responsible because I was warning them as it happened.

"I had two options. The first was to do nothing and let them keep rowing or to restart as soon as possible. If I had done nothing Cambridge would have appealed and I would have had to disqualify Oxford. As they hadn't rowed very far I thought the best thing was to restart them as soon as possible. I appreciate not everybody is very happy with the outcome.

"After I had got them started again, I thought, 'Blimey, was that the right thing to do?' I tried to restart them level but Oxford have complained they were in front at the time and I restarted them down. I certainly didn't intend to give Cambridge any advantage, far from it," he said. "But you haven't got time to weigh things up."

The Olympic gold medallist (and Oxford man) Matthew Pinsent commented, "The better crew won, but Oxford will feel hard done by. They don't feel they lost it fair and square. With my beautiful hindsight I can say it was a nightmare situation for any umpire. There is nothing you can do with two aggressive coxes getting closer and closer. There is no yellow card to wave when they get close to disqualification. It would have been difficult to end it so early." It might have been kinder to do so in Oxford's case. After the restart, Cambridge pulled ahead steadily, to cheers from pubs along the way like The Bull's Head and The White Hart. Scattering ducks and surging through the litter of floating debris and styrofoam, Cambridge exulted at the winning post, with Kieran West climbing to his feet, both arms thrust aloft as they drifted on the tide under Chiswick Bridge, his team-mates wearily thumping the sides of their boat in delight.

Oxford were a picture of dejection at their two-length defeat. Heads were in hands, not a word was exchanged. As these nine miserable people finally struck out for the shore they were offered polite, sporting applause from a launch full of Light Blue caps. Oxford waited patiently in their misery as Cambridge hogged the docking point at the Mortlake Boat Club, hugging pretty girls. When they finally disembarked the Dark Blue crew went in a commiseratory huddle, standing in the water in their wellies as Pinsent presented thetrophy 20 yards away.

The Cambridge coach, Robin Williams, called it "one heck of a race", adding, "When the crews clashed our hearts were in our mouths. I didn't know what the umpire was going to do when he raised the red flag. I thought he was going to disqualify somebody. It was a very courageous thing to restart, a right and fair thing to do, and the right crew won." Williams criticised Oxford for "erratic steering" even after the restart.

"But it is a match race and coxes are just trying to do their job," he added. "I am just relieved it is all over and we have won to make up for last year." Williams' words of support will be of little consolation to Obholzer.

Explaining for the umpteenth time to cameras, tape recorders and notebooks why he did what he did, the umpire said, "There aren't very many rules to this race, that's the pity of it. But I couldn't quite see what advantage the two crews were trying to gain by running into each other."

A bystander advised Obholzer, "Go and lie down in a darkened room," but the umpire wasn't even up to raising a middle finger to this remark. "Oh dear," he lamented, no doubt thinking of that Old Blues dinner still to come.

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