The Boat Race has never been an exercise in speed dating. Seven months of relentless training, 4.2 miles of gruelling rowing and the possibility of ending up under Mortlake Bridge broken in defeat does not encourage much in the way of bonding with the opposition. But this year, there seems to be particular antagonism between the two crews. When Oxford and Cambridge set off at tea-time, the air above the Thames will be crackling with antipathy.
It was evident at the weigh-in when Oxford’s Vassilis Ragoussis and Cambridge’s Henry Meek stood in a boxing-style face-off, nose-to-nose, eyeballing each other, neither man prepared to let go the other’s hand. If not quite David Haye and Tony Bellew it livened up the formalities no end. And however hard they tried to dismiss the idea, when the Presidents of each side were quizzed about the stand-off in their final pre-race press conference ahead of the race, the sense of enmity was evident.
Although the Cambridge president, Lance Tredell, for instance, was quick to insist “it won’t happen again”, the way he exonerated his own man and blamed his opponent for that weigh-in fracas was indicative.
That was not initiated from the Cambridge side,” he said. “And Henry stood his ground and wouldn’t back down.” Meanwhile, the Oxford president,
Michael DiSanto, whose arrival to face the press a good hour after Tredell was more to do with traditional protocol than any pressing requirement to keep the sides apart, tried to laugh it off. “It was just a bit of fun,” he said. “I don’t know who initiated it but it really didn’t mean any-thing. I was really quite surprised.”
Neither side was prepared to explore the root of the hostility. But it is hard to look beyond the identity of the Oxford bow to find the cause. William Warr rowed for Cambridge in this race in 2015 and, as only the third man in history to effect a switch, his defection to the dark blue vest has clearly exposed a nerve.
“There’s definitely some ill-feeling there,” Warr said this week. “Which is hard because I was very close to those guys. And I don’t really speak to half of them now.” One of those he no longer speaks to is the Cambridge cox Hugo Ramambason. The pair used to room together on training outings. But Ramambason’s response to a question about his former colleague was telling.
“He’s made his decision,” he said. “We don’t think of him.” As he spoke, Tredell alongside him was grinning broadly, perhaps at some memory of how Warr was actually being thought of among the Cambridge crew. Indeed it seems unlikely that the transfer has not been noted, that Warr has not become a figure of light blue demonology.
But then, if he was being used as an additional motivational spur it is understandable. In a race as close as this anything that might give an edge to performance is likely to be seized upon. Because when the two crews sit on the start-line in front of Putney Bridge, there will be very few even among the expert watchers prepared to make a firm prediction about who will win.
Cambridge enter the race as significantly the heavier collective. Provided that extra weight is muscle, that should imply they have more pulling power. But Oxford have within their ranks an Olympic medal winner: their No 5 Olivier Siegelaar took bronze in Rio in the Dutch eight. Though as the veteran commentator Barry Davies, who will be out on the river providing insights for BBC World Service this afternoon, might have put it, when GB win gold, who cares who comes third?
Besides, there are no bronze medals to be won on the Tideway. This is all or nothing. And Cambridge, who have not won back-to-back races since their run of seven consecutive victories in the nineties (which encompassed setting a record time of 16 min 19 sec in 1998) are anxious to gain momentum from last year’s victory.
“We are aware of the history and the opportunity that presents,” said Tredell.
Oxford, on the other hand, are keen to demonstrate that Warr made the right decision. Meanwhile, perhaps sensing that there is real potential for ill-will on the water, the umpire Matthew Pinsent revealed that he has had warning words with both crews. He was keen, he said, that they kept their focus on the course and tried to keep the collision of oars to a minimum.
“Previous contests have been almost like hand-to-hand combat, and we came together to try and draw a line under that,” he explained. “I told the coxes that they’ve got to give their crews the chance to win the race.” This will not be for the faint-hearted. Things could turn feisty.