Rowing / The Boat Race: From dark clouds to Light Blue skies: Training and tactics pay off as Cambridge surprise Oxford in the 139th Boat Race to end a run of six defeats. Hugh Matheson reports

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The Independent Online
AT last, after four years as the 'nearly men', Cambridge swung the Boat Race their way with a display of simple, efficient rowing which gave Oxford no route back into the race, once contact had been broken after two and a half minutes. It had been widely predicted that Cambridge would lead for the first mile or two, but it was hard to believe that the awesome array of trained power in the Oxford boat would not come together and haul itself back in front after the Cambridge sprint was exhausted.

Cambridge have been 'back to the drawing board' several times during a losing run of six successive defeats, but this victory was set up two years ago when Max Justicz, Light Blues' president for the 1992 race, brought in the coaching trio of John Wilson and Sean Bowden from Nottingham and the New Zealander Harry Mahon, who runs the Swiss national team. Justicz also laid down targets for strength and fitness. The system nearly paid off in its first year, but poor steering and a shortage of physique robbed them yet again.

This time, the new president, James Behrens, changed nothing, and early on the coaches were able to calculate, via a variety of tests, that they had the physical clout to win. They identified Malcolm Baker, the 6ft 6in American who arrived in Cambridge straight from fourth place in the Barcelona Olympics, as the man who would be the core of a winning crew and who could lay down the rhythm and style they wanted. Then, working in pairs and fours, they concentrated on uniting the skills of their disparate group around Baker.

In Oxford there was an even stronger, and slightly older, squad with the a pair of Olympic champions, Matthew Pinsent and Bruce Robertson, as its leading lights. The coaches did not find a way to concentrate this talent into a coherent unit, and combined with missed training time on the water during the January floods, it looked no greater than the sum of its parts during the succession of private matches which both universities use to hone their competitive skills in side-by-side racing. They are careful to avoid meeting, but as the fixture list is almost the same - including eights drawn from Leander, Molesey and London University - comparisons are drawn. Cambridge were always the quicker and gave a clue to their tactics on Saturday.

The 'two-man move' is applied whether the Light Blues are up or down. If they are moving ahead, when the Cambridge coxswain is level with the No 2 seat in the opposition boat he calls for a hard 'push' when the crew lifts its power and rate of stroke in an attempt to break clear. If they are down, a rare experience, the push comes when their No 2 man is level with the other cox and they throw in everything to stay in contact.

The coaches worked to render every aspect of the preparation down to its essence. They chose the 'cleaver' blades over the conventional, although there is little proven advantage, but then adapted the length of the stroke and the rhythm on the slide to make the best use of them. Above all, they ironed out even the smallest differences in movement, and selected the crew on each athlete's ability to fit the mould. They left the selection late.

Dirk Bangert, the German who rowed at bow after stroking the 1992 crew, admitted: 'I nearly didn't make it. I couldn't get this rhythm until about three weeks ago and was not sure of my place.' Mark Thomson, who won the reserves race in the bow seat of Goldie, had looked a certainty at the trial eights in December but he could not find the precise fit.

At Oxford, meanwhile, the evidence was piling up that although the Olympians were producing enough power to win almost any other race they were not doing it together. Indeed, Pinsent and Robertson only just made the top 10 in the National squad pairs trials and yet were expected to fill the No 5 and No 6 seats of the Dark Blue crew and provide the springboard.

In the four-mile race Cambridge went very fast over the first half and were three seconds inside the record after 10 minutes but then lost 18 seconds off their own pace in the last mile and a half, finishing in 17 minutes exactly. As David Gillard said, 'there was a lot of revenge out there.'

But the conditions had never been conducive to breaking records. They had simply showed greater boat speed than any Boat Race crew ever - and paid for it toward the end.

(Photograph omitted)