Rough and ready Oxford possess the will to win

Hugh Matheson suggests that the Dark Blues can upset the odds today
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The Independent Online
Public sentiment, as expressed in the money placed at the bookies, has it that Cambridge will lift the Beefeater Trophy for the 142nd Boat Race. It is certainly a close call. Cambridge, having won the last three races, and with last year's winning stroke as well as five men who have won the reserves' race against Isis, some by embarrassing margins, were bound to be strong. This was reinforced when the last two seats went to experienced oarsmen, Ethan Ayer and Nick Burfitt.

Oxford have been rebuilding the coaching team and the internal structure after their years of dominance were ended in 1993. Penny Chuter was brought in from the national team as chief coach to do the day-to-day training with Daniel Topolski to provide his extraordinary brand of inspiration and nous as director of coaching. The legacy of oarsmen was, however, poor. Two losing Blues were back and the men coming in from Isis had gone down to a near-record defeat.

The Dark Blues are fortunate that four north Americans arrived in October to beef up a squad with a cluster of British under-23 and junior international medallists. The find of the year has been Adam Frost, at stroke. He refused to row until his first-year exams in Politics, Philosophy and Economics were over. He did, however,take a weight training programme from Chuter last Easter, and has put on a stone and a half of muscle since. His value to the crew is, according to the cox, Todd Kristol, as "a thoughtful, intuitive stroke who is more level-headed and consistent than some of the others."

Behind him is Paul Berger, who stroked the losing trial eight but proved his worth in a tight situation, bringing his crew back to an eight-foot deficit at the end of the four and a half mile course. The stern pair, combined with the highly assertive cox, Kristol, give a strong lead to a crew which has been well drilled by Chuter. The telling feature is that Oxford look like an older crew than Cambridge do, although the Dark Blues are in fact the junior by an average of four months.

The Cambridge crew are similarly balanced with the stern pair, James Ball and Rob Waller, both under-23 world champions, and winners in all the Olympic pairs trials this winter. The cox, Kevin Whyman, was at school in Chester with Ball - these three are the nerve centre of the crew along with Nick Burfitt, the 29-year-old double Olympian, in the bows.

The Cambridge boat have only ventured two side-by-side matches, with Imperial College and Notts County, and have looked good, particularly against County. The Light Blues have proved their speed off the start - but this is not enough evidence to overturn the suspicion that Oxford, sometimes the more rough and ready of the two, will have the sustainable pace to counter-attack along the course and get in front for the second half.

The crews will be alongside for longer than in most years. It could be a classic and, in the year that True Blue, the film of the 1987 mutiny, opens, it will be Oxford that end up in front.