Pinsent: 'It's not as if I'm rowing with schoolboys'

They've descended from the mountains now, from altitude training at Silvretta, high in the Alps, to speed work at their base camp on Lake Aiguebelette in France. Their heads are no longer in the clouds. Metaphorically, they never were. Matthew Pinsent and his crew have always been realistic about what lay ahead. They knew gold exploration would never be more daunting.

They've descended from the mountains now, from altitude training at Silvretta, high in the Alps, to speed work at their base camp on Lake Aiguebelette in France. Their heads are no longer in the clouds. Metaphorically, they never were. Matthew Pinsent and his crew have always been realistic about what lay ahead. They knew gold exploration would never be more daunting.

It's developed into an intriguing British tradition that the coxless four should go through agonies of assimilation, ever since Steve Redgrave's quartet began their preparation for Sydney. But at least Redgrave's four ended up in 2000 - albeit after undergoing numerous injury and illness setbacks - as had first been set down in a blueprint four years earlier.

In contrast, this is the four who were never meant to be; an amalgam of Pinsent and James Cracknell, originally destined for the pair, Steve Williams, the surviving founder-member of the post-Sydney four, and perennial supersub Ed Coode.

Certainly, in their individual parts, this crew are blessed with the quality to claim the gold, and yield a fourth successive Olympic title for Pinsent. It has to be asked, though, whether a crew who only slipped off the production pontoon barely a month ago (Coode replacing Alex Partridge, who had to withdraw because of a collapsed lung), and only raced once in public together, can be adequately prepared to secure the ultimate prize.

Pinsent dismisses the latest reverse with a response which borders on contempt. "We don't think of it as a problem," he retorts at the conclusion of a week in which his crew have completed two high-rate time-trials. "Obviously, it's not ideal, but you've got to get on, and rise to the next challenge. If Alex isn't in the boat, then so be it. Although that [Partridge's injury] was upsetting for us all in different ways, you have to move on."

You ask him how these problems have compared with those pre-Sydney. "Well, we didn't lose someone six weeks before the Games. That's the major difference," he says wryly. "But what's the point in looking back? That's history, and we're trying to make our own. You just get on and confront the situation you've been dealt with now."

Many experienced observers contend that, for all Pinsent's assurances, there is a certain quality absent within his crew: a figure possessing the stature and authority of a Steve Redgrave. That consummate competitor is long retired, of course, and though he was present at Aiguebelette last week, invited by Britain's head coach, Jürgen Grobler, in a motivating role, it is the absence of his like on the water that troubles many.

This time, there is no Redgrave to shoulder all the expectation. This is essentially Pinsent's boating party. But is the Old Etonian equal to the task? Only recently Tim Foster, a member of the Sydney four whose triumph secured Redgrave's fifth Olympic gold, stressed that Pinsent must assume more responsibility. "It's not necessarily something that he does naturally," said Foster. "He's always had Steve there for him."

I relate this to Pinsent. "I've heard this before, although not from Tim. I'm not entirely sure what people mean," he replies, with more than a hint of exasperation in his tone. "I think it's a bit of an illusion to think that Steve was particularly a leader of the Sydney four. Of course, Steve was the big story and the headline-grabber. From the outside, it was obvious to assume he was the leader. But what actually happened in Sydney was that it was pretty much a combined effort. It's the same with this crew, too. It would be a bit strange if I suddenly turned round to James, or Ed, or Steve [Williams], and dealt with them any differently to how I would normally."

An interjection: "But you will be the most experienced man out there..."

"Yes, I've won three Olympic golds and 10 world championships," says Pinsent. "And I'm not suddenly going to change the way I operate. It's not as though I'm rowing with three schoolboys. If these guys didn't have any Olympic experience, then maybe I'd have something to say. But they've all got solid backgrounds."

The evolution of this four has been remarkable. Nobody could have foreseen the boat's final manifestation. As individuals, Pinsent and Cracknell boast herculean powers. Always more than just a courtier at the court of Sir Steve, the former has proved himself a warrior in his own right. Shake hands with him, and it is like grasping a giant ham. The span, relatively speaking, is comparable with the Thorpedo's feet. Cracknell may lack his vigour, but not by much. In tandem, though, their failure in Milan last year, finishing fourth in the world championships behind the powerful Australians, created a dilemma for Grobler: should he persevere with that pair or - in his quest for gold, his principal task - switch them to the four, at that stage considered the "less competitive" option?

Redgrave has publicly harboured reservations about the reselection, which involved ousting Rick Dunn and Tony Garbett from the four (they have now formed a pair) to make way for Pinsent and Cracknell. "We have talked about it, and Steve has assured me that what was printed in the papers wasn't what he was thinking," says Pinsent. "It was a distillation of his views. People stepped round positive things he said and teased out the negatives. Anyway, him being here yesterday shows he doesn't have too many reservations about what we're doing."

But has it been the correct decision? "It wasn't my decision, or our decision. It was Jürgen's, and you accept it. It's just like football or rugby players. They don't get asked about selection decisions or about positional play. They just get told by the manager or coach what they're doing. It's the same for us."

The East German-born coach has a proud record of calling things correctly. After initial misgivings upon Grobler's arrival, Redgrave placed his faith in him. By early on Saturday week, the time of the four's final at Lake Schinias, we will know if Pinsent has been right to do so too.

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