Why we care, at least those of us with no vested interest, is one of the mysteries of sport. But we do, for a few hours each year, and this was a victory that justified the predictions of those who had watched the Cambridge coaches honing a smooth machine to something approaching perfection over the past few months. Only Oxford's formidable record of 16 wins in the last 17 races and the presence in their engine-room of athletes as formidable as Matthew Pinsent and Bruce Robertson introduced a note of caution which, in the event, proved unjustified.
Not that you could have foretold anything from the faces of the two men in the stroke seats as the boats took an age to straighten themselves before the start. For Cambridge, 20-year-old Will Mason, a reassuringly standard-sized medical student, wore a mask of pale serenity. Opposite him, the coiled intensity of Ian Gardiner, the 21-year-old Scot, seemed to hold the greater promise. Once the umpire had set them loose, though, it took less than a couple of minutes of a cold grey afternoon to settle the contest.
Cambridge had won the toss and chosen the Surrey station, putting them on the outside of the long opening curve but giving them the opportunity, if they could hold Oxford there, of profiting from the inside of the Hammersmith bend. By the time the two boats reached the Fulham football ground, Cambridge were three-quarters of a length up. At the Mile Post, which they passed in 3min 31sec to equal Oxford's 1978 record time, the lead was an impressive two lengths and the Light Blues' cox, Martin Haycock, had taken his opponents' water before the big left hook from Hammersmith to Chiswick.
We waited for the counter-attack, but it never came. Oxford's choppy preparation, including changes of oarsmen, a last-week switch of cox, and indecision over the choice of oars which was only resolved in the final hours, was reflected in their rowing. Where Cambridge seemed to be sitting comfortably, dipping their big cleaver-shaped blades into the stream with an easy rhythm, Oxford strained and heaved as if working with a different and less amiable river altogether. So absorbed did they seem in attempting to overcome basic problems of co-ordination that the resources necessary for a meaningful assault on Cambridge's lead were simply not available.
The leaders bettered the record times at Hammersmith Bridge (6:21, three seconds faster than Oxford in 1978) and at Chiswick Steps (10:12, another three-second improvement, this time over the 1984 Oxford crew). Then, holding a lead of between three and four lengths, they were able to ease off, to the extent that by Barnes Bridge they had slowed to seven seconds over the 1984 Oxford record of 13:57. Still, though, there was no semblance of an effective response from the Dark Blues. As Cambridge crossed the finish line in 17 minutes dead, a quarter of a minute outside the 1984 all-time mark, the Oxford cox, Samantha Benham, was still peering over her crew's shoulders at a deficit of three and a half lengths.
Pinsent, the Olympic coxless pairs champion and Oxford's president, nodded his agreement as his opposite number, James Behrens, cheerfully confirmed the benefits of Cambridge's decision to complete their preparation in Nottingham, away from the Tideway spotlight. The race had gone completely to plan, Behrens added: a huge push at the the start, a good rhythm, then clear water all the way.
According to Pinsent, whose generosity in defeat matched Behrens's grace in victory, this could not be taken to mark the end of an era for Oxford. 'We could have salvaged something if we'd rowed our best,' he said, 'and we didn't. But that has a lot to do with Cambridge. They destroyed everything we tried to put together. They put right a lot of the mistakes they've made in the past, and they rowed outstandingly well. Now we have to prove our maturity and come back from this. The last 18 or 19 years have proved that Oxford has a winning system, and it would be a mistake to go back and destroy it now.'
OXFORD UNIVERSITY: Bow: * K K Poole (Magdalen Coll Sch and St John's) 12 st 13 1/2 lb, * J G Michels (St John's Coll HS, US, La Salle Univ and Pembroke) 12:8 1/2 , *B Mavra (Matematicka Gimnazija, Belgrade, Imperial Coll and Jesus) 14:1 1/2 , R H Manners (Winchester and Brasenose) 14:13, B D Robertson (St Francis HS, Univ of Victoria, Canada, and Keble) 14:12, *M C Pinsent (Eton and St Catherine's; President) 15:2 1/2 , P A A Schuller (Phillips Academy, US, Graves Koster, Berlin, Harvard Univ and St Catherine's) 13:8. Stroke: *I W Gardiner (Glasgow Academy and St Peter's) 12:12 1/2 . Cox: S L Benham (St Mary's Sch, Calne and Brasenose) 7:7. Average weight: 13:12.
CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY: Bow: *D E Bangert (Deutschhaus Gymnasium Wurzburg, Univ of Wurzburg, Fitzwilliam and St John's) 12st 9lbs, *D R Gillard (Bedford Modern and St Catharine's) 13:2 1/2 , *J H J Behrens (Radley, Reading Univ and Downing; President) 13:10 1/2 , R C Phelps (Latymer Upper and St Edmund's) 14:0, J A Bernstein (Phillips Andover, Harvard and St Edmund's) 14 8 1/2 , M P Baker (St Albans Washington DC, Brown Univ US and St Edmunds) 14 2 1/2 , S M Gore (Methodist Coll, Belfast and Jesus) 15:1. Stroke: W T M Mason (Shrewsbury and Trinity Hall) 12:9. Cox: M N Haycock (Abingdon and Magdalene) 7:9 1/2 . Average weight: 13:10 1/2 .
* denotes a Blue
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