25 March 2022
By Tim Koch
Tim Koch wonders who will P to M first.
Monday, 21 March, saw the 2022 Oxford – Cambridge Boat Races final fixture when the Cambridge Men’s Blue Boat raced (and convincingly outpaced) a Dutch National Squad U23 crew. As well as ending the fixture season, the Light Blue men had also started it when, on 31 January, they raced and beat Leander at Henley.
The Boat Race Club Fixtures, when top British and foreign crews race potential Oxford and Cambridge Blue and reserve crews, usually over sections of the Putney to Mortlake course, are an important part of the Boat Race Season. They are both a selection test and a provider of key race practice, giving the experience of competing against top-class opposition and also providing opportunities for the rowers and coxes to simulate race day as much as possible. They get to know the course, can practise routines and starts, get to race on both the Surrey and the Middlesex stations and have the experience of being officially umpired.
While the benefits of the fixtures for Boat Race crews are clear, what is less obvious is that the results of the encounters are the nearest indicators of “form” that these two-horse races have. Predicting Boat Race results is particularly difficult as the crews that will meet on the big day have never raced each other before and will never race each other again (except in the winners’ dreams and the losers’ nightmares).
Those who hang out in boathouses and alehouses between Putney and Mortlake and who claim to know about these things say that this year the Blue Boats will see a Cambridge win for the women and an Oxford win for the men. Perhaps they are correct – but these sages said the same thing last year and were proved only half right.
Looking at the results of the fixture races that I have tabulated here, my conclusion is that they tell us very little. The “A” crews (officially, “The Blue Boats” following the crew announcements on 7 March) mostly won their races. The “B” or reserve crews had more varied results and at least one of them asked the club that they were racing to provide a much weaker crew than they were capable of putting out.
The “A” women both raced Oxford Brookes and Leander and both beat them by similar margins. However, the “A” men’s results against Brookes in particular is more interesting.
On 6 March, Brookes beat Cambridge by a canvas racing from Putney to Chiswick – but Cambridge then beat Brookes by 2 1/2 lengths on the Chiswick – Mortlake section.
In the first race, Cambridge were short at the start, set a low rate, did not establish a proper rhythm, lacked aggression, came off worse in a clash and perhaps got pushed out of the fast water. Brookes crabbed towards the end and Cambridge were lucky to lose by only a canvas.
In the second race, Cambridge presented a different approach and took the race from the first stroke, getting a two-man lead off the start rating 44 and soon finding their rhythm. At the finish, they left a tired Brookes 2 lengths behind.
After the second Cambridge – Brookes race, in the live stream commentary Camilla Hadland said, “I’m going to do a full 180 and what I said before about Oxford (men) looking clear favourites… if we get a Cambridge crew that turns up on 3 April looking like that, I’m not so sure”. Certainly, it seems that the Cambridge boys learned the most valuable lesson of any crew in this whole fixture series from their Brookes races. As with many other things, you learn more from your failures than your successes.
Commentator Martin Cross concluded, “If the race was happening today (6 March) I think that there would not be much doubt that it would be the Oxford men… but… the race is happening in a month’s time on April 3rd, so Cambridge have got perhaps more to think about in terms of their preparation.”
The Cambridge men’s coach, Rob Baker, is no doubt thinking rather a lot about preparation and on 21 March took the unusual (at this stage) step of flying most of his two crews to Lake Sarnen, Switzerland, for training on some no doubt lovely flat and calm but un-Tideway-like water. Evidence is provided by stroke Parish’s Instagram post in which you can almost hear the cow bells and smell the pre-Alpine air. Ironically, the Tideway has been warm and well-behaved lately, something set to continue for a time (the first day of rain forecast is Boat Race Day itself).
When Oxford met Oxford Brookes on 20 March, OBUBC finished 1 length up on OUBC in the first race – but were then disqualified for steering (or not steering). In the second encounter, Brookes won by 2 lengths. Initially, this seems good news for Cambridge and bad news for Oxford, but the Dark Blues had to compete against a much stronger Brookes crew than did Cambridge. The Light Blues had raced against a potential Henley Temple crew while their rivals had to contend with Brookes men currently rowing in the GB Squad at Caversham. Further, Oxford had two of their chosen crew out after positive COVID tests. I think that the Oxonians should be pleased by their first race result, it would have been much closer had it been a fair race.
If the Cambridge men really are the underdogs, then they are a strange breed of canine. They are the defending champions and the Light Blues have won all the Blue and reserve races in the last three contests. The Cambridge men are said to be not as “sharp” as their opponents but, historically, many ugly crews have beaten many pretty crews on Boat Race Day.
With Cambridge in Switzerland and with Oxford, I think, at Wallingford, it is a reverse of the usual situation when it is the defending champions who stick to the “tried and trusted” methods while the challengers often try something different. It is “Tideway Week” next week, I trust that the boys in light blue will be back for that.
One person who is less hesitant than I am about making predictions is “Fatsculler”, Daniel Spring. His Boat Race predictions, posted on 13 March, are on juniorrowingnews.com and his usual method is to make a seat-by-seat comparison. He would be the first to admit that a crew is more than the sum of its parts, but it is still an interesting thing to do. In his preamble, Daniel writes:
After the pandemic caused the cancellation in 2020 and a move away from the Tideway in 2021, the race finally returns to its spiritual home on the Championship course from Putney to Mortlake. Almost in celebration of that fact the crews representing Oxford and Cambridge are, on paper, some of the finest ever seen. Post-Olympic years always tend to attract senior international athletes who are looking to improve their academic qualifications and also scratch the rowing itch that is the University Boat race. This year all four Blue Boats have an embarrassment of riches with no fewer than 13 athletes with Olympic experience, and a further 4 senior internationals, the most ever to race in the Boat Race.
The breakdown for the men is here and Daniel’s conclusion is:
Both the Oxford and Cambridge boats are outstanding, and have the potential to be two of the best crews ever to represent their universities. It’s a mark of just how talented the two boats are that former Blues, U23 World Champions and Senior Internationals didn’t make the boat. So, who do I think will win… The engine rooms of both boats have a ridiculous amount of power, Schuerch, Wynne-Griffith and George for the Light Blues and Roeoesli, Delarze and Elwes for the Dark Blues…..I think it’s going to be a great race, but I think Oxford will just have a bit more power than the Light Blues…. I’m picking Oxford to win by 2 lengths.
Daniel’s breakdown for the women is here and he concludes:
I have Oxford ahead by five seats to four, however as a crew Cambridge look the stronger, especially with their three Olympians onboard. I’m going for a Cambridge win with a margin of at least 3 lengths.
I will conclude my attempts at predicting the winners on 3 April by cowardly echoing the veteran BBC Boat Race commentator, John Snagge. In 1949, the launch in which he was following the race broke down and as the crews disappeared out of his sight he told the listening millions, “I can’t see who’s in the lead, but it’s either Oxford or Cambridge.”