The Boat Race: Cambridge come close to a perfect unity: German pair see their own expectations surpassed as Oxford's courage prevents total humiliation

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Eight Cambridge oarsmen who truly deserved the description 'crew' won the 140th Boat Race to go three up in the series and draw out a rash of superlatives from watchers who had rarely seen so much individual talent submerged into the common cause of a single, smoothly oiled engine. It set a new standard for the race.

There was no hope of setting a record time with the start being a full half-hour after the best of the tide running in from Putney to Mortlake, and with a stiff head breeze for the first seven minutes of the course.

The Boat Race has rarely sold itself on the excitement of a close finish. The huge public interest it generates comes instead from the spectacle attempted - unified perfection offered for nothing by people who are paid nothing. If no one paid to watch football's Premier League the whole edifice would collapse in a week. If no one watched the Boat Race it would go on as it has for a century and a half, still striving for amateur (in the sense of unpaid) excellence. It does now have a television fee and a sponsor and without them the equipment and the accommodation during training would be that much more shabby.

But it would still be raced, and by athletes of the highest calibre and ambition. The trophy and the medals are a recent, and perfectly reasonable, invention of the sponsors. The motivation has not changed since the race began although the preparation has become steadily more demanding.

Peter Hoeltzenbein who, at 22, has already won Olympic silver and World Championship gold medals for Germany, paid an oblique compliment to the coaches. 'The standard of the (national) squad was higher in Germany and when we arrived, Thorsten Streppelhoff and I did not think that Cambridge could produce an eight as fast as this one turned out to be.' They will try for selection as the German pair in July but 'if it fails, no matter, we have already achieved much this year'.

In spite of their eminence in the sport, and their eventual importance to the Cambridge crew, Hoeltzenbein and Streppelhoff were not physically outstanding in the Cambridge squad tests and such were the unity and the strength of purpose of the Light Blue coaching team that there was no hint of deference to their status. The whole squad went through the same mill to win selection.

Oxford, where the talent had less international hardware to recommend it, tried to apply the same principles. A pair of coaches, Richard Tinkler and Tim Bramfitt, were appointed by the president, Kingsley Poole, who had come up through the Oxford system during the winning years. They did try to teach a respect for the finer stylistic detail of rowing, and did pursue the ruthless demands of the physical training with appropriate vigour.

But toward the end of the season, when defeat seemed increasingly likely at the hands of a universally praised Cambridge crew, doubts began to creep in and the stronger personalities began to assert themselves.

The coaches were accused of mistakes in selection and of partiality in a way that simply never happens when things are going well. And when two oarsmen became so upset that the whole unit began to suffer, all eight voted for a change of coach rather than suffer any more disruption. Afterwards, they swore this had been the right decision although that is impossible to assess. Poole had failed to assert himself as a president is expected to. On the other hand, he had his plate full, having, reluctantly, taken over the stroke seat when the crew failed to flow behind anyone else. He raced courageously when the cause was lost and, by holding Cambridge to a little over a length for the second half of the course, prevented a bad defeat from turning into a humiliation.

If sacking the coaches was a suitable response to the fact that the eight men had not become a crew, 10 days before the race was a daft time to do it. Fred Smallbone might have been able to add a little bit of inspiration, but he was not able to tackle the stylistic and technical faults which eventually amounted to a 20-second margin over 18 minutes.

Both crews, and their coaches, will now disband and a new coaching team will have to be put together for next year. The most apparent feature of success in the recent past has not been recruitment of stars, but coaches prepared to take endless trouble with stylistic detail and a figure with sufficient authority to hold up the morale through the bleak mid-winter. Whoever takes it on, and regardless of whether the crews are side by side or in a procession, the crowds will turn out to see how close they have come to perfect unity.

The German national eight, who became world champions last September, returned to defend their Tideway Head of the River title as Munster von 1882, beating Leander Club, with Matthew Pinsent and Steve Redgrave, by two seconds. The race was rowed three hours after the finish of the Boat Race when the tide was flowing in the opposite direction.

(Photograph omitted)