Transformed Oxford to weather storm

BOAT RACE: Oxford are tipped to end Cambridge's run, but strong winds could beat them both, says Hugh Matheson
Winds permitting, the 143rd Boat Race promises to be a great contest, with two of the best crews in the history of the event lining up. Cambridge has established a winning pattern after breaking the Dark Blue mould in 1993, and they remain favourites despite a considerable change of style and personnel at Oxford.

The Dark Blues practised in sinking conditions yesterday on the same tide that they will race on today. The north-westerly was blowing fiercely and pushed up white-topped waves that could have wrecked these slender shells in less than a minute. But Oxford survived and, more importantly, maintained an easy, fluent style. Cambridge delayed their session until the water had softened. There is no precedent to postpone the race. If it is spoiled it will be a chance lost to see how well young athletes can be taught in a compressed six-month programme.

James Ball is the stroke and key player for Cambridge as he sets the rhythm. He came back into the system late this year after the disappointment of not being elected President, but was a certain choice to lead the crew. The problem has been to find the right man to sit behind him. On Wednesday the crew lost to their reserves, and the next day they went through a series of reshuffles. That resulted in Alex Story, a 100kg British international who has come up as a freshman this year, being the rower to provide the link of rhythm with the rest of the Cambridge crew.

In the six seat is Alan Watson, a home-grown talent who won with the reserves, Goldie, last year. Behind him at five, and newly promoted from three, is Ethan Ayer, the President, who can once again lift his crew with his ability to deliver on the day.

Behind him, Canada's Olympic spare, Brad Crombie, is new to Cambridge. He is backed by Damien Maltarp, an Etonian of Danish descent who had never rowed before Cambridge. The bow pair have held their seats in the reshuffle, with Roger Pim, the quiet Ulsterman, at two and David Cassidy at bow - both promotions from Goldie last year - reflecting the strength of the Cambridge system.

The cox, Kevin Whyman, won last year but may have to steer a strange course to find the best water for his crew.

The Oxford boat is led by Tim Foster, the most relaxed, natural stroke in British rowing who is perfectly attuned to the coaching style and ambitions of Rene Mijnders, the chief coach responsible for the Dark Blues' transformation. Foster sits smiling in the stern, sending down a rhythm that is picked up by Jordan Irving, one of those rare rowers from Yale who has beaten Harvard in their Boat Race. At No 6, Luka Grubor is the first Croatian to row for Oxford. He forms a vital partnership with Roberto Blanda, a veteran of two Italian Olympic eights, at five.

The bow four has become more impressive as a unit by the day. Two 19- year-old freshmen, Andrew Lindsay and Nick Robinson, fill four and three, along with Charlie Humphreys, a second-year who, with James Roycroft at bow, rowed in the Isis last year. It is a tribute to Roycroft's athleticism and technical proficiency that at 6ft 6in (2.00m) he appears to fit the bow seat well even when the crew is racing at nearly 50 strokes to the minute off the start. Alex Greaney, the cox, has steered two losing Isis crews but is confident this crew can turn it round for him.

Despite both crews being given identical odds by the bookmakers, the developments of this week must favour Oxford. But as Mijnders said last night as he locked up the Boat House: "Lets hope the weather gets better. Otherwise we just row and see how far we get without sinking."

Zen and the Art of Rowing, page 22