Awash with light blue, the 2021 Boat Race in Ely, Cambridgeshire was a rout for the home side. Pressure mounts in Oxford as the 2022 dark blue crews try to break concurrent losing streaks.
The Cambridge women have the swagger of a confident crew. A crew stuffed with Olympic talent ready to overpower, outgun, and outrow their opposition. Oxford University Women’s Boat Club [OUWBC] have gone five races without a winning blue boat, and the light blues want to make it six.
Since two-time Tokyo 2020 Olympic medallist Grace Prendergast swapped Cambridge, New Zealand, for Cambridge, UK, Oxford’s chances for the 2022 Boat Race sunk. Prendergast is the best bowsider in the world, and the Olympic champion has a knack for getting the most from her teammates. The light blue Olympic talent doesn’t end there. Fellow New Zealander Ruby Tew lends her considerable power to the line up, while Team GB’s Imogen Grant leads from the strokeseat.
Bystanders might erroneously underestimate Grant’s impact but her GB Trials result in February is proof of her capacity to outperform openweight opposition. Grant won the lightweight single sculls, and recorded a faster time than twenty of the twenty-two openweight scullers. At stroke her homegrown Boat Race nous will be put to good effect in the crucial stroke-cox axis. “I’m really enjoying myself, the rowing feels great”, she told Row360 on Wednesday. “The amount of talent I have behind me and in the cox’s seat is immense.”
“Coming back I was adamant I wasn’t going to do the Boat Race this year”, said the fifth-year medical student who in previous years stroked the lightweight boat and Blondie against Osiris, “but little by little I got sucked back in.”
In his ninth year at CUBC [Cambridge University Boat Club] Australian Paddy Ryan makes his debut as Head Coach. Candid catch-ups from the coaching launch saw Ryan (rightly) wax lyrical at Prendergast’s capacity to deliver consistency. No matter the rate, nor the intensity, metronomic magic flows from the seven seat. A cool head who knows how to move eights fast, Prendergast also brings length to the Cambridge rhythm.
It was an interesting decision from Ryan to use an external super-sub – Jess Eddie, the retired GB W8+ Rio 2016 silver medallist – in the last two fixtures to minimise disruption to Cambridge reserve crew Blondie. Obviously, should there be any last-minute call ups required on race day this option will not be available.
OUWBC Head Coach Andy Nelder is a firm fixture at Wallingford. This season his crew could harness the loser trains harder mindset. Nelder might justifiably feel hard done by in the 2021 Ely Boat Race – his heavily underpowered side made it a much tighter contest than many pundits anticipated. A touch less erratic on the rudder and Oxford could have pulled off an underdog victory for the ages. Nelder has not been afraid to reimagine his crew line up this year and has continuously tweaked the seating order.
Oxford again enter the race as underdogs. They have less out-and-out star power than Cambridge but the dark blues do have internationals onboard. Canadian Olympian Gabrielle Smith and US lightweight Christine Cavallo have both successfully ditched sculling for rowing. And USA’s Erin Reelick, the former world champion, looked good in the seven seat during Oxford’s first fixture, and has since moved to stroke. Four-times Boat Race winner Anastasia Posner who placed 3rd at Olympic Trials in 2020 adds invaluable experience. “There are three Olympians in the Cambridge boat and Grace is objectively the best rower in the world, but we have senior internationals and three of us who in a different day could have been at the Olympics”, said Posner. “We haven’t got the names but we do have the talent and the depth.”
Anastasia Posner is the only returning Oxford Blue who has tasted Boat Race glory. In fact, Posner remains undefeated in the Boat Race but faces stiff competition to keep her winning record intact. Nevertheless, Oxford are sure to dig deep for the upset, they are undefeated in the fixture series and have shown steady progress through the season.
Five years have passed since Sean Bowden’s men last secured victory in the Boat Race. Cambridge delivered a surpise, yet emphatic, win at Ely last year, and won the two Tideway Boat Races that preceded the cancellation of 2020. Pressure makes diamonds and Oxford is well-equipped with the raw ingredients to take the title back this year.
Oxford’s Achilles heel might be a lack of Tideway racing; Oxford University Boat Club [OUBC] did not feature in the Fours Head and their first fixture was cancelled after Washington University withdrew. On paper, the dark blue men have the stronger pedigree. There are five Olympians in Oxford, of which Charlie Elwes and Angus Groom bring respective bronze and silver Tokyo 2020 medals. Groom has done well to adapt to training alongside a tough academic work load. He negotiated early season niggles while transitioning from sculling to sweep and was forced to miss Wallingford Head and Trials Eights. Sat in the seven seat for his final showdown, he looks well-placed to pass Schröder’s rhythm to the crew.
President and 2021 blue Martin Barakso will compete for Isis, Oxford’s reserve crew, revealing the cut-throat nature of selection and strength in the dark blue crews. By all accounts Oxford’s seat racing was a furious battle royale. Less than a second separated those who succeeded and those who didn’t. Bowden’s stable has not lacked strength and depth this year, there is no tail off in talent. Those in his ranks who haven’t reached the Olympic pinnacle have the potential to do so.
British U23 medallists David Ambler and Tobias Schröder add buckets of pace to the international laden lineup. Triple blue Schröder is hungry to secure his first Boat Race victory, and has been chosen to stroke. It is a big call. Bowden seemed torn between Elwes and the Old Wykehamist. Schröder was first tested at stroke while Elwes was out with Covid, but Elwes retook the strokeseat for the Oxford Brookes fixture while Schröder was out with Covid.
A bloodlust Oxford derby ensued. Any complacency in the Oxford camp was surely expunged after the bruising encounter with Brookes. Brookes raced their full contingent of Caversham based GB athletes and went on to take the Headship six days later. Two pieces, and two nil to Brookes; although umpire Matthew Pinsent disqualified Brookes after the first piece for their aggressive line and lack of response to his warnings. Coxes Harry Brightmore and Jack Tottem were channelling their inner Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamiltons. Racing not for the fainthearted, but the question is, were Oxford spurred on to greater things, or did it punch a hole in their confidence? Can Cambridge rattle Oxford like Brookes did?
Cambridge will be relying on the maxim, greater than the sum of their parts. Will it be enough? The crew have left no stone unturned as they self-funded and self-organised a last-minute training camp to Sarnen, Switzerland. It was Cambridge four man, and former Swiss lightweight Simon Schürch who secured the necessary contacts – his Rio 2016 Olympic gold medal still pulling favours! The camp came hot on the heels of their final Tideway fixture that put paid to the Dutch U23s. The margin was beyond comprehensive, an outright bludgeoning by the Cambridge men. But was that kind of comfortable victory edgy enough to sharpen their mettle come the ultimate test against Oxford?
Underdog wins are fast-becoming something of a Rob Baker speciality. The Head Coach of Cambridge will be hoping to see last year’s team spirit reincarnated by returning blues, Ollie Parish, and cox and President Charlie Marcus. Tokyo 2020 Olympic medallists Tom George and Ollie Wynne-Griffith add significant fire power despite the latter switching to bowside. “I definitely feel more comfortable on bowside”, said Wynne-Griffith, who switched in November. “It’s been a nice challenge to refresh the brain, re-teach myself skills where I know what I’m looking for.” Despite a rocky first outing the pair topped the GB Trials at Boston in February. They were over ten seconds clear on second place, and put nearly a minute on OUBC’s Henry Pearson (now in Isis) and Tobias Schröder. Luca Ferraro and Oliver Parish were also racing and finished eleventh. Ferraro has stepped up considerably since joining CUBC. His speedy development had best not falter now if the light blues hope to prosper when they meet Oxford on the Championship Course.
The Boat Race 2022 will be held on Sunday 3rd April 2022, the Women’s Boat Race is at 14:23 and the Men’s Boat Race will start an hour later at 15:23. Cambridge currently lead the women’s event 45 to 30, and the men’s 85 to 80 (with one dead heat recorded in 1877). It will be the 76th Women’s Boat Race and the 167th Men’s Boat Race.