The 145th Boat Race: Classic Cambridge turn the screw

Light Blues leave Oxford floundering as they cruise to seventh straight victory
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THE QUAINT idea, fashioned down Oxford way, that this would be a classic Boat Race between two equally matched crews lasted no longer than previous predictions of imminent Dark Blue renaissance. Oxford came to the Tideway full of confidence that a run of six Cambridge victories would be gloriously ended under the broad pillars of Chiswick Bridge. But the silent figure of their coach, Sean Bowden, on the pebbles of the Horseferry Rowing Club told the story of another shattering defeat for his crew. It is now seven out of seven for Cambridge; the drawing board back at Oxford is beginning to wear out.

"I'm really floored," said Bowden, whose one fading pleasure must come from the success of the system he instigated across the divide at Cambridge. "I just haven't got any answers until I talk to the crew." He will not find much enlightenment there. "It's hard to say," Toby Ayer, the Oxford No 4, said. "I don't think there were any tactical errors out there. My impression is that they were quicker than us and that is a very hard thing to have to say."

Ayer has won two varsity juggling tournaments, but the four and half miles of the River Thames proved a rather tougher test of mental and physical stamina. Oxford were outrowed from first stroke to last by a Cambridge crew who, as their impressive president, Brad Crombie, pointed out, rowed as a team. Oxford had imported two North American internationals to give their engine room a few more revs; instead, the greater cohesiveness of the Cambridge eight shone through and their three-length margin of victory, nonchalantly gained, could easily have been doubled so quickly did Oxford's much-vaunted spirit break.

"I thought it would be a bit more competitive than that," Robin Williams, the Cambridge head coach, said. "This was the fastest crew we've had in training and they more than lived up to that on the day." The time of 16min 41sec was the second fastest in the history of the race, but some shrewd judges thought this crew superior to the one who smashed the record 12 months ago. The debate will last long into summer evenings over the port and cheese in the cloisters of Cambridge colleges. "It was strength, not just physical strength, which showed out there today," Williams added. "We knew this crew had the potential, but we had some concerns that it wasn't quite happening. They raised their game today and I am thrilled for them."

Dire warnings that the race could end in the first disqualification in the 145-year history of the race - the first to be sponsored by Aberdeen Asset Management - proved as unfounded as the pundits' faith in an Oxford victory. Mark Evans, the umpire, had told both crews that he would take none of the mayhem which had almost brought the crews to a standstill the year before. In the event, he had to issue three warnings to Neil O'Donnell, the Oxford cox, for desperately trying to push Cambridge out of the tidal waters and twice white-flagged Vian Sharif, the petite blonde steering the Cambridge crew. But though the crews came perilously close to touching oars at the mile post, nothing was able to disturb the calm confidence of Cambridge's rhythm.

For Crombie, winning his third race, the performance of his crew brought a distinguished career to a fitting conclusion. The Cambridge president has been the heart and soul of this crew and the thought of letting the big Canadian down gave the victors an extra edge of motivation. "That's the most fun I've ever had rowing for Cambridge," he said. "We made our job really very simple."

His opposite number, Charlie Humphreys, has tasted a hat-trick of bitter defeats. Each time for the past three years, he has had to look across the water and see Crombie in full celebration. Had he lifted his head from his hands long enough yesterday he would have seen Crombie standing arms aloft in the exultant manner patented by Donald MacDonald after Oxford's epic victory in the mutiny year. He probably wanted to drift off down to Marlow. "This year is worse than all the previous years," he said. "We were very confident in our ability and unfortunately weren't able to put it into practice on the day."

In truth, the job was as deceptively simple as the Cambridge president had said. Cambridge tossed, Oxford called wrong and the Light Blues voluntarily opted for the Surrey station, which Oxford had surprisingly bequeathed them last year. First blood to Cambridge. Oxford's delicate psyche was not helped by the long wait on the stake boats. Less than a minute later, as Cambridge inched out a narrow lead from the start, they all but knew their fate. "I knew after 10 strokes we were quicker than them," Tom Stallard, the one freshman in the Cambridge boat, said. "After that, it was just a question of staying calm and confident and keeping our rhythm."

By Palace Wharf, Vian Sharif was already looking across at the Oxford No 3. A desperate spurt by Oxford nearing Hammersmith Bridge brought an instant and demoralisingly nonchalant response from the leaders and once Cambridge had gained clear water, the race was sealed. Bar putting their feet up and getting out the cigar box, Cambridge could not have looked more comfortable. The one disturbance came in the following fleet; the Cambridge coach's launch veered suddenly left, colliding with a press launch. "I was reaching for the lifejacket," Williams said. Oxford would have understood that sinking feeling.