Practice run … Sydney University’s men’s eight team trains for Sunday’s boat race (see route on the map at right).WHEN Will Raven says without hesitation, ”I love to push the boundaries,” rest assured few who have ever rowed in the Sydney University coxswain’s crews would disagree.
Likewise, there are many who have have found themselves on the receiving end of Raven’s steering ability in a coxed eight and lost by the narrowest of margins who would agree.
Just ask Alex Henshilwood, coach of the Melbourne University coxed eight beaten by an official margin of ”two inches” by Raven and his Sydney University crew in last year’s Australian Boat Race over a 4.2 kilometre course on Melbourne’s Yarra River.
In a thrilling race where the lead changed three times, Raven steered the shortest way to the line in the final 100 metres and – within the boundaries of match racing law – forced Melbourne University on to the disadvantageous shallow waters of the river near the finish.
”He did a good job, went up to the edge of what was acceptable and managed to get away with it,” says Henshilwood, who hopes to turn the result around in this year’s 4.3km race on Sunday that follows a north to south-east route on Sydney Harbour from Woolwich to Darling Harbour.
The Australian Boat Race, which has coxed eight match races for men and women’s crews, has gained in prestige and notoriety since its resurrection in 2010 after a 140-year absence when what began as an informal challenge between two universities in 1860 became a full-out intervarsity regatta from 1870 on when Adelaide University and others started to take part.
Last year’s race was thrilling, and left many who watched labelling it as the best they had seen.
The narrow margin was a testimony to the sheer courage and strength of both crews to fight it out head-to-head for twice as long as they would a normal 2000m six- or eight-lane race. But it also highlighted the importance of a coxswain’s often underestimated role in the outcome.
Henshilwood has responded by picking Marc Douez as Melbourne University’s coxswain. An Australian team member from 2002 to 2007, Douez, at 31, has 10 years on Raven, who is nonetheless a name to watch and steered the Australian under-23 coxed four last year.
Raven expects a mighty battle of wits on a course that, while protected by an exclusion zone from 8am to 9.40am, could still be affected by the tide, swell, or early harbour traffic wash.
”It will be a bit harder to push them around, so I expect them to have a bit more fight in terms of steering,” Raven says. ”There will be a few clashes of oars and things like that this year.”
Henshilwood concurs: ”On this course, it’s important to get the best calibre of cox. It’s not two-lane racing. In one-on-one racing, a lot more tactics comes into it. You need someone with lots more experience. If you had a choice for youth or experience, you would go the experience.”
Little wonder, then, that by Sunday’s start of the women’s race at 8.20am for the Bella Guerin Trophy and the men’s race at 9.20am for the Edmund Barton Trophy, the coxswains and coaches of all four crews will have carried out reconnaissance of the course in motor boats.
Chances are that all crews will also have tinkered with their boats to accommodate the rougher conditions than what they are used to by placing a splash guard at the bow of their eight and strapping tape between the riggers near the gunwale to stop water from entering the boat.
Raven predicts that the open nature of the harbour course, which will take crews past well-known landmarks such as Goat Island, Balmain, Barangaroo and under Pyrmont Bridge to the finish line in Darling Harbour, should allow for a larger winning margin than last year’s ”two inches”.
”This year will be a bit harder because the course will be more open, so it will be harder for us to get those little inches that we managed to get last year on the course,” Raven says.
There has been debate as to which crews are favourites in both the men’s and women’s races.
Henshilwood scoffed at Sydney University stroke Fergus Pragnell’s suggestion this week that Melbourne University were favourites because they had three Olympians in the mens eight and – unlike Sydney University – had trained and raced together as a full crew more often.
The Melbourne crew boasts James Marburg, a 2008 and 2012 Olympian, Cameron McKenzie-McHarg (2008, 2012) and Josh Booth (2012). Meanwhile, Sydney have Pragnell, who was a 2008 Olympian and a Games reserve in London this year, and Francis Hegerty (2008 and 2012) – although both only rejoined the crew this week as they live in Melbourne.
”I don’t really care too much about the favourite badge. It’s pretty easy to play the underdog, isn’t it?” Henshilwood says. ”It’s always a good tactic to try and set yourself up as that.”
The Sydney University coach Mark Prater knows Henshilwood well, and won’t read into anything that is said before the race, other than to be prepared for anything that happens at any time.
”What we have learned – not just in this race but all our other racing against Melbourne Uni in eights is to expect the unexpected,” Prater says. ”We have won from behind. We have won from in front. And we have lost in both cases as well. The guys are good at focusing on their job.”
For the Sydney University women’s crew, added motivation comes from the goal of avenging the pained memory of being beaten so convincingly by Melbourne last year, even if only one member of last year’s crew is back for Sunday’s race – a London Olympian, Bronwen Watson.
But Watson’s experience and that of Monique Heinke, a 2008 Olympian, could make a big difference, says the team coach, Debbie Fox. ”The biggest impact is psychological and not so much technique, but the amount of pressure they are prepared to put in themselves,” Fox says.
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.