Rowing: Oxford's old school tide

Andrew Longmore discovers that Eton's rowers are entering a rare blue period

A STREAK of Etonian light blue will run through the dark blue boat for the 144th boat race on Saturday. Behind Andrew Lindsay in the Oxford crew will be Ed Coode, not far away James Roycroft, all three products of a system of excellence every bit as efficient as the one now being exposed in a Bonn courtroom. At Eton, elitism does not necessarily refer to the presence of royalty or a healthy bank balance. A steady stream of international oarsmen have emerged from the 100 or so "wet bobs" who each year start their careers by messing about on the river. Rarely, though, has the college produced such a talented collection of oarsmen.

In total, seven Old Etonians will row down the Tideway on Saturday. Three in the Oxford boat, three - Ed Foster, Rich Evelyn and Alex Cooper - in Isis, the dark blue second VIII, and one, Theo Brun, for Goldie, the Cambridge second VIII. Any more, and the Monopolies Commission would be called in to investigate. "Just pure chance, I think," Lindsay said. "I began rowing, like many of us, because I didn't want to play cricket. My two brothers rowed at Eton, so it seemed a natural thing for me to do too. Ed's just malcoordinated. That's why he rowed. He couldn't catch a cricket ball if he tried."

Bruce Grainger, Eton's head of rowing, was international performance director of the Amateur Rowing Association until 1991. He resigned over the appointment of Jurgen Grobler, the super coach from east Germany whose own involvement in the drug culture of the eastern bloc is at present under investigation. Neglecting what he called the "more sinister aspects" of the mighty east German machine, Grainger still appreciates the underlying importance of statistics in the identification and development of talent. In its own way, Eton has applied systematic principles to its highly productive rowing programme. "If you take 1,000 young rowers, you have a better chance of finding an Olympic champion than if you have 10," he said. "The laws of probability will start to work in your favour."

Boys start in sculls, specialise in rowing in their second year and then graduate through junior IVs and VIIIs under the guidance of year coaches until the creme de la creme emerge at the top to staff the crack first VIII. From there, with the educational flow between Eton and Oxbridge working in their favour, it is a mere hop to Boat Race glory. "I never felt under any pressure to row," Lindsay recalled. "My ambition was always to carry on. Pressure doesn't come so much from the masters, but from your fellow oarsmen."

Etonians can boast a hatful of Olympic medals down the years; only occasionally does a specimen as strong and determined as Matt Pinsent emerge from the Masters boathouse, one of three at Eton, to rewrite the college - and Olympic - annals. Pinsent, it should be remembered, led Oxford to resounding defeat in the Boat Race.

The re-emergence of Eton as a central force in the Boat Race is heartening for the future of the race itself. The days of bad Boris Rankov, the aged, perennial, American graduate who epitomised the lost spirit of simple inter-varsity competition, have long gone. Both crews have an even balance of graduate to undergraduate, a reflection of sharpened standards of junior rowing and of a move by both varsity boat clubs to integrate themselves more fully into the international development system. Three members of the Oxford crew have already undergone assessment tests in the midst of the sacred programmes geared to settling one of sport's oldest rivalries, a luxury not afforded some of their predecessors. Shortly after Saturday's race, they will be required for international training camps.

"There was a suspicion of Oxbridge oarsmen before," Lindsay said. "They were good oarsmen, but they didn't turn up for trials. I mean, we're preparing for a race now, internationals are preparing for the worlds in September. Both varsities now have good systems, they're making more allowance for us and we're trying to move towards them. If you videoed the GB VIII and the Oxbridge VIIIs, there wouldn't be much technical difference now."

For the next six days, though, only the little parochial spat matters. Oxford have a nucleus of old blues scarred from narrow defeat a year ago and there is a feeling that under the guidance of Sean Bowden, the end of a painful sequence of five defeats is nigh. "The difference for me," Lindsay said, "is that I'm really looking forward to it. Last year, I was terrified, of the day, of being the centre of attention, of the media. Last year, there was a slight sense of aimlessness in our preparation, not quite knowing what we were training for. Now when everything seems pointless, cold and miserable, you remember how bad it was to lose."

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