Rowing / Henley Royal Regatta: Eton's feet of endurance tell - Shrewsbury beaten as leading school eights' fight to the finish ensures a bright start to a rainy regatta

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The Independent Online
HENLEY Royal Regatta opened yesterday with evidence that air and water will mix, but only at the expense of fun. The lawns of the stewards' enclosure were cleared and spectators were requested to stand on the tarmac towpath to preserve the grass for later in the week.

However, the oarsmen who were sweating their way over one mile and 550 yards against the stream of the Thames, hardly noticed the extra wetness coming from a passing downpour and the Regatta stayed precisely on time and fulfilled its 11 hours of sometimes intense racing, with only one postponement.

The racing was close in the heat of the Princess Elizabeth Challenge Cup for school eights, when Eton, the holders, beat another of the fancied crews, Shrewsbury, by just two feet.

Shrewsbury led from the start, but Eton, in their first race with the new 'cleaver' square shaped blades, drew level before the barrier and increased their lead by holding the rate of strokes to the minute at 37 for most of the course. Shrewsbury hung on at 35.

Mark Woodcock, the Eton coach, feared that the high rate would mean that 'when it came to the finishing sprint, Shrewsbury would find more in the locker'. They did, but Eton hung on for the narrowest verdict of the day. Eton now have the dubious privilege of racing Shiplake, who defeated them in the national schools regatta a month ago.

The Eton second eight then emulated their top crew when they overtook Waseda University in the last few strokes of a heat of the Temple Challenge Cup. They won by four feet, the second closest verdict of the day.

In spite of the absence of Britain's top scullers at high-altitude training camp for the Olympic games, the Diamond Challenge Sculls should have strong British representation in the later rounds. Gareth Walters, Calman Maclennan and Rorie Henderson all look strong.

The best pedigree in the event probably belongs to Oleg Kozikov, a Russian who will go to the Olympics as first reserve for the CIS team. He arrived at Henley late on Tuesday night and was fortunate to find he had been 'selected' to begin racing today when he will meet Peter Anderson from Queensland.

The Regatta opened with a startling race in a heat of the Thames Challenge Cup when London Rowing Club equalled the record to the barrier when beating a Nottingham county crew, who were expecting to do well even though they had only three outings together in the eight. Nottingham gained revenge 10 hours later when half their eight beat a different London four in a heat of the Wyfold Challenge Cup for coxless fours.

The wind was then contrary for most of the day and few races approached the record books until late in the evening when Pangbourne equalled the record to the barrier in the Princess Elizabeth Cup after a strong tail wind had blown up.

All three of the Canadian schools went out of the Princess Elizabeth and with the defeat of Hampton School - the winners of the National Schools regatta - at the hands of Westminster, there is no certain finalist from the bottom half of the drawer. King's School, Chester, look likely to lead the top half.

One effect of the absence of the leading international crews is that the best club crews move up a grade and race for cups that would be one stage beyond them in a normal year.

However, there is a murmuring of discontent over the fact that Goldie Boat Club - better known as the Cambridge Boat Race crew - have been allowed into the Britannia Challenge Cup, which is the second-class event for coxed fours. Yesterday they had little trouble beating Dartmouth Rowing Club, of the United States, and look likely to take the event at a canter.

(Photograph omitted)