Two intense Boat Race trial eights races on the Thames on Tuesday demonstrated the strength in depth of both the Oxford and Cambridge squads this season but gave little clue as to who might win the big race on 7 April.
Cambridge coach Steve Trapmore described his squad’s race – in nasty wind and waves for much of the second half – as “one of the best ever” and was clearly pleased by a match that saw the lead change hands three times.
Oxford’s one-and-threequarter-length margin was closer but the race was a little more straightforward, with one crew taking over at Hammersmith and holding a winning lead.
The crews are given fun names by the students each year. Cambridge chose “Cloak”, featuring 2011 Blue Joel Jennings, and “Dagger”, with squad president Dave Nelson in seven seat and fellow 2011 veteran Mike Thorp two seats behind him.
Oxford president Karl Hudspith was the only remaining dark blue from last year’s winning crew, rowing in a boat named “Hell”, while former Isis cox Zoe de Toledo and German international Hanno Wienhausen raced in “High Water”.
The high water that Oxford raced on proved not to be the worst, though, as Cambridge suffered far rougher conditions during their race, which started 75 minutes earlier.
On the Middlesex station, Dagger has the better start of the two light blue crews and cox Ed Bosson, a former GB junior, made the most of it, pushing his rival Sarah Smart over towards the Surrey bank. Smart, who used to spend holidays working as a punting tour guide on the Cam, showed her mettle, though, holding her line at Hammersmith then getting the best of a serious clash of oars under the bridge.
Cloak took charge but could not make sufficient ground with the bend in their favour, never getting more than about a length then, along Corney reach, Dagger came back. They were level at the bandstand, extended that to a length at Barnes Bridge and had a lead of over 12 seconds by the finish.
“We kept the crews completely apart and we treated this period like a mini Boat Race, to make an event of it,” said Trapmore, who was based on the Tideway while training to win an Olympic gold in Sydney 11 years ago then coached at Putney-based Imperial College.
“It shows we have a close, robust group at the moment who produced probably one of the best trials eights there has ever been.
“To show the resolve when you are down and being hit by waves, whitecaps when you go round Hammersmith bend – it can be like that on Boat Race day and you can’t recreate that situation without being here and doing it.”
Using the “Boat Race tide” later in the day, Oxford had a wider river to play with but coxes De Toledo and American Oskar Zorilla stuck closely together.
Umpire John Garrett warned Zorrilla in particular and his regular shouts of “Hell, move to Surrey!” may have bemused casual onlookers.
After wash from a Fire Service launch at Putney – hampering High Water on Middlesex – then a slight clash at the Mile Post, Hell moved gradually ahead, a two-second lead at Hammersmith becoming a one-and-a-half length lead by the Bandstand, at which point Zorilla’s slightly wayward steering was moot. His men were longer and more effective but their opponents fought well to keep the margin close.
“It’s a very important event. We don’t necessarily prepare the crews for a long period of time because you’ve always got a conflict with the general development you need to make to win the Boat Race,” said coach Sean Bowden.
“Until they’ve done it they don’t really know what they’re in for and it’s not necessarily the physical component of it, it’s the understanding of the intensity with which you have to race at certain key times, how easily they get punished for small mistakes.”
In Olympic year, neither squad boasts the sort of experience it might have at other times but all now have a far greater knowledge of the unique Tideway course.
Cambridge, who will go on two training camps to Banyoles near Barcelona either side of Christmas, seem to be further from setting their crews but Trapmore has revised their training programme this year, driven by the four-length defeat he suffered on debut last season.
“Last year was very disappointing. It was a pretty emotional time because me and the athletes put so much into the event and for it not to work out the way you want to is pretty tough to deal with. We did a lot of analysis and there was a lot of good stuff that underpinned last year. It was just that we didn’t show it on race day,” he said.
“We’ve continued momentum last year but we’re looking at all sorts of new ways of doing things and – from my personal experience of training here – refining to make it more specific for this race.
“I’m pretty open-minded [on selection] at the moment. The way I’m looking at it is that it’s organic and developing through day-to-day training as well as the assessments we’re doing,” Trapmore continued.
“I’ve got a few ideas and I’m looking at events like this to confirm different ideas I’m thinking about individuals, units, crews and coxes.”
Bowden believes he has many of his blue boat already in place and will get closer to his final line-up on camp in Temple-sur-Lot after Christmas.
“It will make it apparent to certain people who would have seen themselves as strong members of the group that they’re not as strong as some of the other guys and maybe they have to respond on an individual level if they want to be in the boat,” he said of the trial race.
“If you’d looked at them on paper you would have thought [they were two balanced crews], you might have even thought the one that lost was stronger, but it became apparent through training that the boat that won had more basic speed.
“I’d like to think I’m going to have six or seven guys in my mind to build our crew around but I’m aware that getting the perfect combination may well mean there is an odd person who you think is a good individual may not end up featuring if he can’t combine in the eight and make a good job.”
UPDATE Wednesday: Having listened back to coaches’ post-race interviews this morning, I’ve given the above a write-through, adding quotes and detail. I always enjoy speaking to Sean Bowden and listening again usually reveals something I’ve missed the first time.
Here are the audio highlights of my chat with cox Zoe de Toledo, where she talks about racing on her “home course” on the Thames, her determination to make the top Boat Race crew in 2012 after missing out last year, her struggles when she started coxing at St Paul’s Girls School in Hammersmith, and her aims of making the Olympic team in 2016. The write-up should be in Hammersmith & Fulham Chronicle later this week.
And here’s a short feature for the West London Sport website, on how this year’s new boys are benefiting from the local knowledge and experience of Oxford president Karl Hudspith and Cambridge coach Steve Trapmore.
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