Rowing / Boat Race: Oxford's outsiders learning to adapt: Hugh Matheson on an enduring Eton connection

Click to follow
OXFORD boasted at least five Etonians every year in the last decade of the last century and on two occasions there was only one outsider for them to adapt to. This time there are two, who happen to be the only Oxford Blues who are undergraduates at their first university. And Harry Macmillan and Christian Mahne (pronounced Mainer) have found they have been the ones to adapt.

'At school everyone had started from the same beginning and could be spoken to as a group and it was fairly authoritarian. Here there is a tremendous breadth of experience. There are Olympians from different countries, which raises the whole thing several notches,' Macmillan said. Mahne is still wary: 'One has to learn how to get on with people as different as this group. It is effortless being understood by one's peers, but not everyone here has the same cultural capital. It's easy to put people's backs up saying something which would be perfectly appropriate at home.'

It is hard to see either of these two as social misfits. Mahne spent part of his gap year working for the Tory MP Sir Jerry Wiggin as a secretary and researcher, but was also offered a job by Labour's Tony Blair. 'I'd have been just as happy working for him.' In spite of this endorsement, Mahne is more likely to stand for election within another Dark Blue crew than a red one. Now in his second year, he may well gain electoral experience standing for president of the Oxford Boat Club, which thirsts for firm leadership and rejuvenation.

Macmillan is in his last year and is unlikely to be back. He, too, is disarmingly fluent and, having spent most of his childhood in Rome where his father is an agronomist with the UN, can explain himself just as well in Italian. 'The coaches here can't just lay down the law. We all have a say.' And in spite of having less international experience than the others, he missed a junior world bronze by inches.'

Neither is an obsessed athlete. Each gives evidence that while rowing and winning are fun, there is also a life plan being worked out. As Mahne says: 'I didn't want to undersell myself when I was unready in my first year. This time, particularly after racing for Oxford in the summer, I knew I had a strong chance and went for it flat out.' They do not resent the increased competition for places since the huge rise in postgraduates through the Eighties. They feel they will be part of something better and more memorable.

One hundred years ago today, Oxford, with five Etonians, beat Cambridge, with six. This time, Cambridge has only one, Matthew Parish. But the race is unlikely to take the hint from history and Oxford will have to redraw their plans to avoid becoming a permanent underdog.