Rhythm and Light Blues

As Cambridge discovered when they won the Beefeater Trophy for the Boat Race on Saturday by the small, but secure, margin of two and threequarter lengths, confidence can be a crucial factor in sport.

With this fourth successive win, Light Blue has become the expected colour of victory. This is an invaluable mood in any club. An expectation that your efforts will be rewarded is worth lengths when set against the dread sense that it is all going to turn to dust once again.

Oxford had appeared to have turned the corner and had a strong, aggressive crew which throughout training had looked older and more mature than Cambridge. The crews were quite distinct in style. Oxford were the more orthodox, with a long stroke and the recovery between the strokes extended to give the crew time to gather together as they compressed their bodies for the catch of the new stroke.

The change in Cambridge fortunes, with the first victory of the current run, followed five years of rebuilding and restructuring.

The late Mark Lees arrived on the Cam for the 1989 race and saw his first crew go down to their 13th defeat in 14 races, but from the first he introduced important changes. Key to everything is what they now call the "Cambridge rhythm". Lees brought this with him from Nottingham: it was an adaptation of the way he had taught lightweights, who have less sheer strength, to move in a continuous elastic cycle and, keeping the stroke short, to apply all the power in the middle of the stroke.

It is no accident that Robin Williams and Ian Dryden, the Cambridge coaches, are former lightweight oarsmen. Nor was it a surprise when John Carver, the president who had to give up his place in the crew when two wrist operations failed to heal properly, heaped most of his praise on them in the glorious aftermath.

The perceived weakness in the 1996 Cambridge crew was that the two very tall men squashed in the middle of an otherwise well-matched crew, Sebastian Dawson Bowling (6ft 7in) and Ethan Ayer (6ft 8in), might not be able to match the rhythm coming from the stern three.

After the first mile Cambridge were, as expected, ahead, but only by half a length. Oxford looked well together and settled in for a long, slow grind to get back on terms. At this point much depended on the two stroke men. Adam Frost seemed to be setting a workable rhythm and the aggressive Paul Berger at seven and Jeremy Howick, an even more determined Canadian international at six, were getting stuck into the work.

But over on the other side James Ball, a graduate of the Goldie crew from 1995, was locked into an altogether easier, more springy movement. The two long men in the middle looked underemployed. Less obvious from outside was the number of times Todd Kristol, the Oxford cox, who had judged perfectly how much he could squeeze his opponent, Kev Whyman, without risking disqualification, had been obliged to call 10-stroke pushes to keep in touch.

The Light Blues had responded with "absorbing calls" and had soaked up the pressure. When Ball and Whyman felt the course bend in their favour they called a 20-stroke push that was meant to be the decider. It showed a significant change of pace.

Damien West, a British international rowing at number four for Oxford, confessed that the crew had never really had a decisive gear change to reply to such a move. Cambridge took a length in the 30 strokes between Harrods Depository and Hammersmith and once they had broken clear it was all over, except that there was still nearly three miles of slog for Oxford to pursue their valiant, and vain, chase.