Oxford fight the tide

Hugh Matheson believes the return of Dan Topolski will not upset the Light Blues
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OXFORD will start the 141st Boat Race on Saturday level on the stake boats but trailing in the long run: since 1829 they have enjoyed only 68 wins to Cambridge's 71. With most undergraduates on three-year courses the culture of the clubs is short-term, and none of the present Oxford crew was at the University during the long run of Dark Blue wins which began in 1976 and ended in 1993.

After two consecutive defeats, Oxford's president, the American Jeremiah Maclanahan, turned back to the arch- motivator, Dan Topolski, who had been dropped in 1987 after another four Americans had staged a very public mutiny against his training and selection methods. Alongside him doing the day-to-day work is Penny Chuter who was national coach for over 20 years. They have taken a disparate group of wandering scholars (there are only two Britons in the group) and have created a crew with identifiable style and unity. Robert Clegg, a losing Blue in 1994, said: "There is no comparison. This year there's a real spirit and sense of purpose. We can feel ourselves getting closer."

Cambridge also have a new appointee as chief coach in Robin Williams, who has come from a career winning a hatful of world lightweight silver and bronze medals. Alongside him is Harry Mahon, who helped the Light Blues to their past two victories and is now commuting from New Zealand, where he is the national team's chief coach, to advise and inspire.

Cambridge have a pool of four outstanding international oarsmen around which it has been relatively easy to build a crew. Richard Phelps, 29, is president and holder of two world bronze medals in eights. Matthew Parish was junior world champion in 1989 while Richard Brownlee of New Zealand and Marko Banovic of Croatia have both represented their countries in world finals.

Williams produced two very good Trial VIIIs and has barely faltered in his preparation, having the distinct advantage of smooth canal water at Ely compared with Oxford's disrupted winter on the Thames which has been the subject of frequent danger warnings issued by the National Rivers Authority.

The Light Blues have spent the last week training in Nottingham in the confidence that their cox, Russell Slatford, knows the Boat Race course well having learnt his trade at King's School in Wimbledon. In addition, his coach knows the Tideway intimately from 15 years of training on the course for the national team.

What is more, Williams and the umpire,1983 Oxford Blue, Lynton Richmond raced together at London Rowing club and should have the same view of where the stream runs fastest. But Slatford has been on the course only four times with this crew before the final week. Oxford will hope they can keep close enough in the crucial early bends for 19-year-old Abbie Chapman to lead him astray. Chapman is being taught the best line by Bert Green, a Putney waterman for 50 years.

The only problem for Cambridge has been the smooth transition of the rhythm down the boat. The big quartet had been split with the experienced Dirk Bangert at No 5 and with Phelps moved back to No 2.

Critics see these manoeuvres as a chink in the Cambridge armour, and there is talk of tension creeping into their preparartion. But it is hard to detect when talking to the crew, who seem as confident as possible.

During his decade of wins, Topolski maintained his record by inspiring crews which perhaps should have lost to win against the odds. The odds are against him again and a Dark Blue victory would upset every prediction of the past six months. But Oxford will be closer than seemed possible a the start of the season and the culture of the Boat Club has been transformed.

How the crews line up

Oxford

Jeremiah McLanahan (US)

Age 25. Height 6'5". Weight 14st 1lb.

Garth Rosengren (US)

Age 23. Height 6'1". Weight 13st 7lb.

Boris Mavra (GB)

Age 25. Height 6'5" Weight 14st 8lb

Laird Reed (US)

Age 25. Height 6'4". Weight 15st

Jonathan Kawaja (Can/GB)

Age 23. Height 6'3". Weight 13st 3lb

Hugh Corroon (US)

Age 28. Height 6'3". Weight 13st 5lb

Robert Clegg (GB)

Age 24. Height 6'3". Weight 14st 2lb

Jorn-Inge Throndsen (Nor)

Age 23. Height 6'2". Weight 13st 4lb

Abbie Chapman (GB)

Age 19. Height 4'10". Weight 7st 7lb

Cambridge

Roger Taylor (GB)

Age 21. Height 6'3". Weight 14st 2lb

Matthew Parish (GB)

Age 23. Height 6'4". Weight 14st 8lb

Simon Newton (NZ/GB)

Age 24. Height 6'3". Weight 15st

Richard Phelps (GB)

Age 29. Height 6'5". Weight 14st 5lb

Dirk Bangert (Ger)

Age 27. Height 6'2". Weight 12st 13lb

Scott Brownlee (NZ)

Age 26. Height 6'6". Weight 14st 10lb

Marko Banovic (Croa)

Age 27. Height 6'4". Weight 15st

Miles Barnett (GB)

Age 21. Height 6'2". Weight 13st 9lb

Russell Slatford (GB)

Age 25. Height 5'7". Weight 7st 12lb

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