The standard of Boat Race crews, which is always closer to the international benchmark than other university sports, has risen relentlessly in the past four years. The training they do is now the equal of national teams, and thanks to the huge sums of sponsorship money that flows into the race, and the numbers of foreign graduates needed to keep the cash-starved universities going, the available men are better too.
Oxford formed late, and only came together as a crew in the past few days. The assembly of talent is formidable. The crew is built round a pair of Olympic champions, Bruce Robertson, a 30-year-old Canadian, and Matthew Pinsent, the 22-year-old Member of the British Empire.
To match them Cambridge will rely on their Americans, Jon Bernstein and Malcolm Baker, who learned to row in East Coast prep schools and the Ivy League. They are both senior internationals but have not yet reached quite the same heights of achievement. Each, moreover, is a stone lighter.
In the bows, experience and clout are very closely matched. For Cambridge Richard Phelps, rowing at No 4, beat his opposite man, Richard Manners, out of a place in the British eight for Barcelona. None of the men in front of them has raced for his country, although all are old Blues.
In the stern, however, there may be a difference. At stroke Oxford have chosen Ian Gardiner, who was more or less a novice when he won, in style, last year, and Philipp Schuller, the German international who arrived at Oxford as recently as January but who forced himself into contention when he appeared to solve the coach's problem of how to fill the important No 7 seat.
Against them Cambridge have two men winning their first blues. Sinclair Gore at No 7 and Will Mason at stroke have nevertheless fulfilled the most important role by turning the crew into a cohesive unit.
It is on this cohesion that the race will depend. John Wilson, coaching Cambridge for the second year after winning the race with Oxford in 1991, says: 'Our strength is that the unit is greater than the sum of its parts. Some argue that Oxford has better parts but their unit may not yet have clicked together.'
Cambridge have opted for the 'cleaver' blades for which Wilson is the marketing manager and have trained with them for several weeks. Oxford have trained with conventional 'Macon' blades but will switch to cleavers if the water is flat. With a good weather forecast they will probably convert this morning.
In practice Cambridge have been very slick off the start and, using the superior ability of the cleaver blade to 'lock on to the water' with a slightly short, sharp finish to the stroke, may be expected to lead off the start and perhaps for as much as six or seven minutes.
The race, though, is a long one - the record, set in 1984, is 16min 45sec - and much depends on how well Cambridge can maintain the rhythm under pressure.
The Oxford coaching team has years of experience and has had to win the last four races from behind. The crew will be well prepared to recover any deficit.
For all that they may find conversion to cleavers at the last minute a disadvantage. The bigger blade and shorter outboard lever place different strains on the upper body and these may be disruptive after 10 minutes of hard racing.
The crucial difference in last year's very close race, when the crews were level after 14 minutes, was in the steering. This time the coxswains are unknown quantities on the Tideway but the umpire, Mark Evans, showed good control in 1991 when he had charge, in his first race, of the two coxswains who had participated in the only disqualification in history. For him that should not be a realistic sanction this afternoon. He has to maintain control without ever forcing the issue.
Each university has done the best it can to prepare two bright but inexperienced coxswains but neither really knows how they will perform. A sensible prediction is therefore impossible but I expect Oxford to win, albeit by less than three lengths.
BOAT RACE FACTS AND FIGURES
The record for the four-mile course from Putney to Mortlake is 16min 45sec clocked by Oxford in 1984. The slowest win is 26:05 by Cambridge in 1860.
Cambridge sank in 1859 and 1978 and Oxford went down in 1925. In 1912 both crews sank and the race was re-rowed two days later. In 1951 Oxford sank near the start and the event took place two days later. Cambridge collided with a barge and sank before the start in 1984 and the race was put back 24 hours.
Oxford's Chris Heathcote is the heaviest man to row in the race, scaling 17st 5lb in 1990. The heavier crew have won 84 races, compared to 48 wins by the lighter crew.
Coxes Francis Archer (Cambridge, 1962) and Hart Massey (Oxford, 1939) are the lightest Boat Race protagonists, both tipping the scales at 5st 2lb.
Oxford's Samantha Benham is the eighth woman to cox the event. Sue Brown steered Oxford in 1981 and 1982, followed by Henrietta Shaw (Cambridge 1985), Carol Burton (Cambridge 1986), Alison Norrish (Oxford 1989), Leigh Weiss (Cambridge 1989), Lisa Ross- Magenty (Cambridge 1990), Elizabeth Chick (Oxford 1992). Only Weiss and Ross-Magenty lost.
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