Rowing / Henley: Cracknell's new-look crew looking for grand finale: Quality of international opposition improves for Henley - Hugh Matheson looks forward to top-class rowing at Henley Regatta, starting today

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The Independent Online
THE HENLEY Royal Regatta begins today with the highlight of the week's racing taking place on Friday when the Grand Challenge Cup, the top two events for fours and sculling events, get under way.

Five eights from the top seven in the world are drawn in the Grand, with the new British crew, stroked since last week by James Cracknell, racing the French national eight on Saturday. The Australian squad, entered as Sykes RC, will put a young crew against the Dutch national eight on Friday, but the favourites are likely to be the Charles River and San Diego crew which finished third in the world last year as the United States.

Coached by Mike Spracklen, who until four years ago lived and worked in Marlow, the US crew are using Henley as a warm-up for the Lucerne Regatta.

In the past Lucerne has followed a week after Henley and few crews have been able to raise their game to race well twice in seven days. This year, and in future, there will be a two-week gap and a flood of international crews have taken the opportunity to enter Henley. In the Stewards' Cup for coxless fours, the French world champion crew will have to beat a Belgian boat in order to move on to race the winner of the meeting between a Swiss crew and Molesey, which is a revamped British squad four.

Discussions are still going on between the stewards of the regatta and Jurgen Grobler, the British men's coach, over personnel changes for two of his crews. James Cracknell and Jim Walker transferred to the eight and Tim Foster and Rupert Obholzer came into the four alongside the Searle brothers. Grobler's decision is based on the experience of the eight and the four in Paris two weeks ago when the four flopped. Although his decision was pragmatic rather than forced upon him by injury, it would seem to be in the interest of Henley that he puts forward his best crews to ensure good racing. The international opposition are unlikely to complain of being tested too hard when the only point of coming here is to find out how fast a crew is before Lucerne, where most federations decide their selections for the World Championships.

The Goblets prize for coxless pairs has three top crews led by Steven Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent, world or Olympic champions since 1991, with last year's silver medallists, Detlef Kirchoff and Hans Sennewald, in the other half of the draw.

The Australian pair of Wayne Diplock and Eric Moore took an early bath during practice when they were sent under by the Atlantic City crew which emerged from the wrong arch of Henley Bridge. Diplock was scratched and bruised and their blades cracked and the pair have decided to concentrate on Lucerne.

The Thames Cup is one of five different events for eights offered by the stewards. Ranging downwards, in status and standard, from the Grand Challenge Cup which was first raced for in 1839, and is now the preserve of the top international crews.

The four other eights events are designed to achieve the peculiar English flavour of a rowing meeting which is Olympian at one end and the equivalent of a village cricket match at the other.