ROWING : Oxford try to turn the tide

Jeremiah Maclanahan, a 25-year-old American, yesterday challenged Richard Phelps, a 29-year-old, sixth-generation Thames rowing man, for the Beefeater Trophy, given to the winner of the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race.

Oxford, losers for the past two years, opened the academic year as underdogs and remain behind in the expectations, but the gap has closed considerably. Daniel Topolski, who coached Oxford to 12 wins in the 1970s and 1980s, has returned as director of coaching, and alongside him is a new chief coach, Penny Chuter, with almost 20 years experience as a national coach.

Their years on the international circuit look invaluable when confronted with a squad of oarsmen with few British athletes and only one, Rob Clegg, named in the first eight yesterday. The Oxford crew is made up of postgraduates, with the exception of the coxswain, Abbie Chapman. But this is a reflection of the sort of people in the universities today, rather than any change in the ethos or management of the Boat Race.

The Cambridge crew have more undergraduates and many fewer foreigners, but the probable eight to be drawn from the 10 named yesterday will be six months to a year older, with an average age of over 25. The effect of this selection of age and experience is a general raising in the standard of the race.

Marko Banovic, a Croatian who will give Cambridge a solid platform of power and rhythm in the middle of the boat, responded to questions of why he had ended up in light blue after an extended architectural education in Zagreb and Boston by saying: "It is a chance to get one more year of training for the '96 Olympics while advancing academically.

"Cambridge is one of the few places with an excellent postgraduate course in environmental design. I find the discipline of training in a group quite difficult, but it doesn't have to last much longer."

Cambridge put their four internationals- Phelps, Banovic, New Zealand's Scott Brownlee and the Briton Matt Parish - up against a Nereus crew with five Dutch world medallists aboard and came out in front at the weekend. But Oxford, transformed as they are and harsh as they have been in dealing with the sort of opposition who mesmerised them a year ago, still have water to cover until they compete on equal terms.

They have no senior internationals to lean on, and must engender a strong sense of team spirit to show that eight individuals can submerge their differences into one unit that far exceeds the sum of their efforts. The Dark Blues have certainly come a long way in five months, but the five weeks remaining until 2.30pm on 1 April are critical.