Light Blues savour a Story book finish

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The Independent Online

The Cambridge victory in one of the hardest fought of University Boat Races on Saturday was narrow enough to make the reasons difficult to fathom.

Although most bets were hedged, the majority of experienced watchers favoured Oxford on the morning of the race, because their crew had been calm and efficient in the final week, while Cambridge were beaten by their reserves on the Wednesday and did not seem to get much relief from the comic seat shuffling with which the coaches tackled the problem the following morning.

But behind the smokescreen the single crucial move had been made. Alex Story, who can turn coaches grey in training, was put in the key seven seat behind the 1996 stroke James Ball and, as he did for the British Olympic eight last summer, he raced a blinder when it counted.

Ethan Ayer, the president who has not eradicated the technical faults which he brought with him from Harvard, also moved up from three to the middle of the boat at five and he too, when the crew needed it most, found the elusive rhythm. In less than a minute after Chiswick Steps as the bend turned properly in their favour Cambridge transformed their chances.

Before the start, attention was devoted to the radical methods of the Oxford coach Rene Mijnders. He had come straight from the triumph of his Dutch eight in the Atlanta Olympics, and it was clear that he has transformed the Dark Blue camp. The speed of his crew seemed assured when they beat, among others, the French national eight in Amsterdam two weeks ago.

The squad had abandoned weight training which for the older Olympians like Tim Foster and Roberto Blanda in the stern was probably safe. But the younger athletes in the four bow seats might have been able to find more - to add to their assured grasp on the style and rhythm - if there had been greater deep strength available in the last mile.

Oxford avoided blaming the umpire for his leniency when he allowed Kevin Whyman, the Light Blue cox, to push them off the stream for most of the two-mile Surrey bend. None of the dozens of clashes of blades, particularly of Story and Foster, affected the final outcome in itself, but Cambridge's dominance of the best water allowed them to find the rhythm that released the superior power available in the stern four.

There is also the mystery of the Boat Race which frequently defies reason. After their longest losing streak in history Cambridge took decisive steps to change their approach in 1989, and by 1992 had caught up with Oxford in most respects. That year the race was a carbon copy of this, with the roles reversed. Cambridge led to Chiswick Steps but Oxford, led by Rupert Obholzer, forced a way through and won only in the last mile.

What was clearly a great Oxford crew was beaten by opponents whose greatness is only qualified by losing to their reserves. In a year's time Oxford are still likely to be strong, with most of this crew returning, but Cambridge will patch up their gaps by recruiting from a formidable batch of spare men.

The shame of an enthralling day is that international trials will draw away some of the best men, and although these crews will carry on in some form they are unlikely to reach these heights again.

Cambridge have confirmed their satisfaction with their chief coach Robin Williams by giving him another three-year contract, while Oxford are equally keen to hold on to Mijnders.