Mijnders can turn the Tideway

Andrew Baker studies the impact on Oxford of a diplomatic Dutchman with rare gifts
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The Independent Online
It is traditional in the weeks immediately before the Boat Race for both crews to spend day after day on the Thames Tideway, familiarising themselves with the river conditions and racing against other clubs in preparation for the big one. It has also become traditional in recent years for Cambridge to beat Oxford when the big one comes around, which is one reason why the Dark Blue squad has taken the unusual step of relocating to Holland for their final training. Another reason is the nationality of their new coach, Rene Mijnders.

"We are training on the Bosbaan," Mijnders said last week, "the 1928 Olympic course, which is excellent. Rough water, which you sometimes get in the Boat Race, needs special skills which you can best develop on flat water. If you train all the time in the rough you get less precise on the pick-up, and you lose the feel of the boat, and the way it moves under you."

Precision and feel are watchwords with Mijnders, whose unusual coaching techniques guided the Dutch Olympic eight to a gold medal in Atlanta. As Steve Royle, Oxford's Director of Rowing, explained, the 40-year-old Dutchman's philosophy is quite a departure from the usual British approach. "Rene's style is quite distinctive," Royle said. "He believes there should be a very relaxed, continuous flow, quite different from the aggressive 'push, whack, snatch' that has been the way we do things in this country. The method should look like perpetual motion: the eye shouldn't be able to detect where one phase ends and another begins, just placing the oar in the water each time and driving. The rower should be relaxed, and - this applies to a lot of sporting disciplines - when you are relaxed you really get the power." Royle, and the rest of the Oxford hierarchy, are impressed with what they have seen. "I've seen coaches come and go," Royle said. "But this guy really is special."

The Mijnders approach differs in more than technique. Under Dan Topolski (who remains a close adviser) Oxford raced as often as possible against all kinds of opposition in the build-up to the Boat Race. Mijnders has been more discriminating in his choice of opponent, and the Heineken Cup in Amsterdam offered just the kind of races and opponents that he wanted. "We came here because we were unable to find a suitable match in London," Mijnders explained, "and this seemed a good alternative. Now I'm very glad we came because it went so well. It is actually a tournament with four races, one each over 250m, 750m, 2.5km and 5km. It was good because it was side by side against the French national eight, which included six former world champions in the crew." Oxford won three of the distances and only lost the 750m event by half a length. "It was useful," Mijnders concluded, "because you are able to focus on yourself and work out how to respond to the opposition."

One of the more difficult tasks for the Dutch coach in recent months was to tell the president of the Oxford University Boat Club, Ed Bellamy, the man who had appointed him, that there was no place for him in the boat. Bellamy remains in charge, but on Saturday he races with the second eight in Isis. "It was hard on Ed not to make the crew," Steve Royle said. "To have put all the effort in right through the year, that was total disappointment and devastation. But he has shown great character and picked himself up and put a lot of effort into the second boat."

It says a lot for Mijnders' diplomatic skills that such a momentous decision caused no rift within the squad. But he is not a dictator, and he never forgets that oarsmen are people too. "I wouldn't say that Rene is one of the boys," Royle observed. "But he is very approachable. He's not one of those guys who screams a lot. He knows that he is working with students who have other things in their lives - it's not just row, row, row, or train, train, train. He is a breath of fresh air, he is flexible, and we have stopped head-banging around here."

It is clear from talking to Mijnders and Royle that the Dark Blues are feeling confident that they can prevent Cambridge from winning for the fifth time in succession on Saturday. But they know that they cannot underestimate the opposition. "One thing never changes," Royle said. "It's a two-horse race and every year you go to the line with one thing in mind. There's no question that Cambridge have got their act together and built a pretty good machine that produces strong performances. But I think there are going to be two hot crews this year. We really have something special here." Could he define that special thing? "It's fast."

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