Rowing: Blood on the water as Iceman and Maverick square up

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The competition for places in the Oxford University rowing team reached boiling point yesterday as two crews locked swords, or rather blades, in a trial race on the Thames.

Chris Dodds watched the new man in charge struggle to keep the peace.

Oxford, facing up to five consecutive defeats in the Boat Race, have brought in a new coach in Sean Bowden, a significant component of Cambridge's winning formula before he went to coach the Olympic eight in 1996.

Yesterday he brought his squad down to the Tideway in spanking new Ayling boats to show off their talents from Putney to Mortlake - and they blew it.

Iceman, on the Surrey station steered by this year's cox, Alex Greaney, and Maverick, on Middlesex steered by the Rutgers cox, Neil O'Donnell, went not so much against each other as at each other. They had a serious clash close to Harrods Depository where blades and flesh made contact, but the real boat-stopping dog-fight came in rough water beyond Hammersmith. In the melee James Roycroft, No 6 in Maverick, crabbed and lost his oar. His rowlock and outrigger were damaged, and although he completed the course when the crews set off again, he was clearly in difficulty as well as in a seriously bad mood. The stroke of his boat, the Swedish international Henrik Nilsson, threw his hands up in despair, and cox O'Donnell, hailing from the land of straight tide-free courses, was questioning just what he had gotten into.

Bowden vented his anger in the privacy of the crew debriefing and ordered Iceman and Maverick out again on the afternoon ebb. The press launch did not shadow the race from Hammersmith Bridge to Putney, but informants report that a close race was eventually won by Iceman by a canvas after Maverick, on Surrey, had led from the start. Blades did not touch.

The crews were well matched until disaster struck in their morning outing, with O'Donnell getting the better of Greaney for the first mile. Both coxes had the better of the umpire, who was inexperienced in his thankless task, by exercising deft bouts of deafness.

Five Blues were on parade, including the president, Andrew Lindsay, elected recently in place of the British international Tim Foster who failed to secure a place to read for a PhD. The new intake includes the German international Jurgen Hecht and British international Ed Coode.

We may learn who the real top guns are today when Cambridge stage trials. Their 49er, Andy Ripley, the former rugby international, has been selected in the third boat, so it looks as if his rowing technique does not match his physical strength. Cambridge oarsmen dominated the British Indoor Championships on rowing machines last month.