Rowing: Trials on the Thames

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OXFORD opened their Boat Race campaign to level the longest running series in world sport, poised at 68 to 69, with two chunky trial eights which engaged in a fierce struggle in appalling conditions on London's Tideway yesterday, writes Hugh Matheson.

A sparring session with the sponsors, Beefeater Gin, led to a renaming of the crews as Lewis and Bowe (the suggested Arse and Elbow were considered a little below the belt), but neither funked the fight. The strong south- easterly met the flood of landwater from the recent rain to create an arena as rough as any in the world of boxing.

Oxford have the pick of the strongest Boat Race squad ever assembled. It starts with Matthew Pinsent, the world and Olympic gold medallist, continues with Bruce Robertson, another Olympic champion (for Canada in the eights), and has two more Olympians, Andrew Gordon Brown, of South Africa, and Richard Manners, the freshman who was spare man in Banyoles. There were three other winning blues in the trial crews and another, Joe Michels, the 1992 president, was on the bank.

The race, from Kew Bridge to the Boat Race Mile Post, was an even contest for the first four minutes with the probable Blue Boat sitting in the middle four seats of each crew, although Ian Gardiner, whose last-minute elevation to stroke made a crucial difference last year, was at two in Lewis. Ross Breckenridge and Richard Kelly, the strokes yesterday, were probably being tested for the leadership of Isis.

With the help of the bend at Barnes Bridge, Bowe, which had established the better rhythm, was able to draw ahead and with two good 'pushes' came clear. Rachel Quarrell, Bowe's coxswain, immediately cut in front of Lewis making its bad water worse. Her crew moved smoothly away and were challenged only twice. At Chiswick Steps, Lewis put together a good combination with the No 5, Bruce Robertson, powerful if a little short at the finish of the stroke. Again, between Hammersmith Bridge and Harrods, when the waves were high and white, Quarrell stayed out in the rough on the instructions of Pinsent, the president, and Lewis pulled back a length, but never threatened to win. The difference was two and a half lengths.

Photograph: David Ashdown

(Photograph omitted)