At the final press conferences prior to Sunday’s BNY Mellon Boat Race we heard from all the key players starting with the Oxford team of Coach Sean Bowden, President Malcolm Howard and Cox Laurence Harvey.
To begin with Bowden was asked about final preparations for his Blue Boat, “It’s going well, everyone’s in good health and good spirits, they’re fast and we have a few more outings, five to be exact, with two important ones before the Race.”
These outings include one later on today (Friday), where the crews will practise Race starts off the stake boats, “An important workout getting used to the conditions and the umpire,” said Bowden, while on Saturday the crew will be doing a race pace piece to “deliver the crew at its best.”
Explaining the characteristics of this Blue Boat, Bowden said, “The crew may be one of the smaller ones to come out of Oxford but they have a terrific amount of power for their size, they’re focused and row with an efficiency and fluidity when they’re at pace.”
He was then asked whether their age, being the older of the two crews would make a difference, “Being older in itself isn’t an advantage but what comes with it is experience, especially Boat Race experience which is a positive advantage. The ability to make decisions along the way is always important in these long races.”
And as for the weight difference, “Being smaller doesn’t usually work in rowing, so we may be at a disadvantage in a head wind but we’re satisfied that the power they produce will be good enough.”
The forecast for Sunday indicates there will be a strong wind after Hammersmith Bridge, which Bowden says he will factor in, though the crew hasn’t had much practice in rough water, but “You build a crew that is robust, who can handle any conditions and do the mental work off the water to make sure people are ready and you have a good plan.” He indicated that they would make a decision on the day as to whether to race with pumps in the boat or not.
On Sunday the crew will paddle in the morning while in the hour before the Race the crew will go through its land based warm up routine as part of a structured day.
President Malcolm Howard was asked how rowing on the Tideway for a week helped, “It’s useful to spend some concentrated time here just to get used to the conditions. The water is more primal and brings richness to the rowing, here there is more excitement about it (the water).”
He was then asked how the rivalry and history between the teams affected his crew, “Obviously we wouldn’t be part of this programme if we weren’t aware of the rivalry so of course it feeds in,” he explained, and talking about his Light Blue competitors “Of course we are aware of them but I have always focused on what I have to do while knowing there is a crew over there that wants to beat me.”
Laurence Harvey, the Oxford cox was then asked about the battle of wits between himself and his Cambridge counterpart, but said he hadn’t put much thought into how his rival would do on the day, “We’re totally focused on our own performance, though we are prepared for any eventuality. We don’t want clashes and hopefully it will be a good clean Race, but we are prepared.”
All three of the Oxford team were then asked about the smog that has allegedly been covering London for the past few days, but all dismissed it, Howard claiming he only knew about the issue when his mother emailed him.
At the Cambridge press conference Coach Steve Trapmore expressed his pleasure at how well preparations had gone this week, though said “It’s always a challenge when you’re not used to rowing on the Tideway but we’ve been getting used to the water and are relaxed, taking it one session at a time.”
Asked about the lead up to the Race over the next two days Trapmore, like his Oxford counterpart, talked about the importance of practice off the start “It’s a good chance for the crew to orientate themselves, to soak up the environment without the crowds, to get used to the tide beneath them on the stake boats and to get a couple of good starts in.” Then over the next 24 hours we’ll be doing some paddling, a few bursts, watch the Veterans’ Race on Saturday afternoon, root for Cambridge and soak up some of the atmosphere. While on the morning of the Race we’ll have a paddle, pack our bags, stay relaxed and prepare for the main event.”
President Steve Dudek was proud of his crew, “Their motivation is always there to win,” he said. Asked about the 2012 Race which Cambridge, with Dudek on board won, following the stoppage caused by a swimmer on the course, he was still keen to purge the memory looking to 2014 for a “real win.” He also talked about the importance of staying relaxed between outings or as his old coach would say, “stay flat.”
Rivalry plays an important part for Cambridge, “That rivalry defines CUBC in everything we do, but we’re internally focused. You control the controllables but leave everyone else to their own devices.”
He was also full of praise for the programme run by Trapmore, “It’s been extremely important in my physiological development, I’ve made a lot of technical improvements, so I have a lot of faith in what it can turn a rower into in just a few years. Steve’s turned me into a half way decent rower in just 2 ½ years, which is a miracle in itself!”
Cambridge cox Ian Middleton spoke of having some nerves but more about what an opportunity the Race represents. “We’re internally focused and have confidence. Of course there are nerves, but we know what we can do and have the confidence to go out and perform.”
Talking of potential clashes he was aware that it’s a real possibility, “Obviously you don’t go out looking for clashes, or to pick a fight but there’s a likelihood, it’s the nature of the Race, both coxes go out there looking to put there crew in the best position. The bends are the most likely places for clashes as that is where one crew will be trying to tuck in and not go too wide, that’s the crunch point of the Race.”
He made light though of the dress rehearsal that the coxes have with the Umpire where they drive launches rather than steer their crews, “Steering the launches was almost more of a challenge than steering the correct line, but definitely a useful exercise.”
Cambridge didn’t anticipate trouble from potential rough conditions, “We have to be prepared,” said Middleton “but I don’t think it’s forecast to be so rough that we’ll have to head for the bank. We’re prepared and it might seem counter intuitive but the more relaxed we are the better we’ll row in rough water, we just trust in the technical changes we’ve made.”
Trapmore was asked about being heavier yet still the underdog and was characteristically sanguine, “It’s understandable, they have three Olympic medalists in the crew. Until athletes turn up we don’t know what size our crew will be and we can’t do anything about Oxford, so I think it’s a red-herring, the most important thing is how we prepare the crews to tackle the event.”
Finally we heard from BNY Mellon Boat Race Umpire Richard Phelps and his counterpart for the Isis/Goldie race Simon Harris. Phelps was asked how he’d been preparing to umpire his first Blue Boat Race.“I briefed the Cambridge crew on Sunday afternoon, held the coxes’ rehearsal on Monday then held the briefing with the Oxford crew on Monday evening, but other than a flurry of emails I’ve been away from the river until now.”
The main topic of the email exchanges was about the circumstances in which the Umpire would order a restart back on the stake boats, “Without going into all the detail” Phelps explained “Our main message is to focus on completing the Race on the day. A re-row” he said, “is a less good option. Going back to the stake boats would challenge our ability to complete the Race on the day and we’ve all learned it is much better to get it done on the day.”
Phelps was then asked about the equipment breakage rule, “Rule 9” he said, “states that if there is a serious accident that is not a specific oarsman’s fault before the end of the Fulham Wall, which can be corrected, there will be a restart.” He went on to clarify saying that if it was a mechanical or structural equipment malfunction that would qualify as a reason to re-start the Race.
Asked about what he expected from the weather and if crews would be cutting into the bank for protection, Simon Harris recalled the 2004 Race which he umpired in rough conditions, while Phelps elaborated that according to Rule 4 “The proper course is the course that allows a crew to get from the start to the finish in the quickest time while allowing ample water for the opposition. So if there were 4 foot standing waves in the middle of the river I would probably decide at that time that it was not a crew’s proper course.”
He also reminded everyone present of Rule 5 which states, “The Umpire is the sole judge of the proper course. So if there is really rough water at any point I will be warning the crew closest to the bank to move to that bank until I feel both crews are in their proper water.” The Thames is a dynamic environment,” said Phelps “so the proper course is never the same one day to the next.”
Harris was asked for his words of advice to Phelps on his first Boat Race as umpire, but gave a reminder that, “Richard is an experienced umpire he’s done Isis/Goldie twice, so I’d say just enjoy it.” He went on to explain how the instigation of the Umpire’s Panel 16 years ago meant that everyone on it had plenty of practice, “so for Richard this is a logical progression, he should have fun.”
When asked whether the Reserve Race placed as much pressure on the Umpire, Harris felt it didn’t, “Personally I haven’t felt as much pressure as when I’ve umpired The Boat Race, but I still have to go out and do a fair job for the crews on Sunday. There are two crews who have trained all year for one Race I have to make sure they get the best race.”
Finally Phelps was asked whether he had a specific plan if a cox ignored his requests. “I’ve briefed them very clearly, if you move quickly and gently then everyone’s happy. I’m happy, your crew’s happy because you haven’t disturbed the boat and your coach is happy because you haven’t just put the brake on. If you ignore me I will get louder and more present. As I said in the Oxford briefing, to quote from Pulp Fiction, ‘I will get medieval on you’. I’m certain the coxes will be in doubt that they will be ready to move by the time I need them to.”
Phelps praised both Blue Boat coxes, “They are both very good at moving quickly and gently. These are two sensible coxes” but he continued to sound a note of caution, “Let’s be clear 2012, when there was a broken blade, showed all coxes that their equipment can break and if they ignore the Umpire and go off the proper course they do so at their peril. 2012 showed us there is a downside to ignoring the Umpire.”
The BNY Mellon Boat Race will take place on Sunday 6th April at 5.55pm.