Well, that’s Henley Royal Regatta over for another year but what a Regatta! In the run-up to the regatta I was excited about the plans to offer video coverage, but at the same time I was unsure at how effective it would be. I need not have worried, it was truly superb. I may be a little be biased but I genuinely believe that the coverage, masterminded by Neil Chugani and Matt Pinsent with Sunset+Vine, was a real game-changer, not just in the coverage of rowing but in the coverage of outdoor sport as a whole. Everyone is talking about the drone, the pictures were incredible and the angles it gave were able to give a great insight into the speed and power (and tactics) involved in match racing.
I was lucky enough to be in the Press Box for the first time for most of the racing and it does make me wonder how the press were able to cover the racing without the use of video coverage. The atmosphere up there was electric, especially during the final of the Grand.
Anyway, here are my thoughts on the racing…
The Diamond Challenge Sculls
If there is one negative from this year’s Regatta it is in the relative weakness of the open small boats events. In the Diamonds, when Alan Campbell withdrew to focus on Lucerne, it effectively neutered the event. It made the racing no more than a “battle paddle” for Mahe and the result was never in doubt (unless Mahe hit the booms or got abducted by aliens or something). Still, the record books will show that Drysdale won his 5th pineapple cup, one more and he equals Stuart Mackenzie’s record and gets his “full dinner service”.
The Princess Royal Challenge Cup
It was a similar story for Mirka Knapkova in the women’s open single. She was up against mid-ranking international or development athletes and there was only ever going to be one outcome from that. She also wins her 5th title, equalling the record set by Maria Brandin of Sweden, something she was very conscious of coming into the regatta.
The Silver Goblets and Nickall’s Challenge Cup
The entry list was a little stronger in this event than the singles, but it ended up as GB squad battle with the senior pairing of Foad & Langridge winning comfortably against Oli Cook and men’s 8 super-sub Staurt Innes. Although the win was by no means guaranteed as at the finish, whilst Foad and Langridge celebrated the umpire, Richard Stanhope cruised up to the pair, hands in pockets saying “you haven’t won yet, I haven’t raised my white flag”. He then proceeded to quiz Langers on his wayward steering …they probably covered 2200 metres rather then 2112 given the weaving they were doing! In the end he accepted Langridge’s explanation that it was due to the gusting wind and he confirmed the result. After the race Foad said that it wasn’t their best race and Langers doesn’t steer will at the best of times!
There was high drama after the Regatta as Foad was apprehended by some over-zealous security guards who thought he was trying to nick the Silver Goblet he’d been awarded for his win!Fortunately it was soon sorted and the Regatta has since apologised to the Molesey man.
The Double Sculls Challenge Cup
The weather played a big part in this race. The brisk headwind effectively neutralised the threat posed by the South African world champion lightweights. But they still gave it a damn good go against the British heavyweights. Collins and Walton must’ve have been a little nervous when they saw the draw and had a sense of déjà vu as they also faced the world champion LM2X at last year’s regatta. In 2014 they ended up on the wrong side of a titantic battle against Azou and Delayre. This year into the headwind the South Africans held onto the British to the Barrier but the extra power meant they were able to pull away.
The Queen Mother Challenge Cup
Another event with a disappointing entry…..I can’t help thinking this event could be on its last legs, the competition has been relatively weak for the past few years making it a procession for the GB squad. This year it was a German development boat who were the sacrificial lambs and a 5 length verdict is not really what a neutral spectator would’ve wanted.
The Princess Grace
Some great racing in the heats, the pick of which was Molesey beating Stanford in the semi-final – a truly epic race with the British crew being lead at every marker until rowing through the Americans along the Grandstands to take a famous victory. But, the heats and semi’s of this event were just really to sort out who had the honour of getting stuffed by the British national squad in the final. Molesey are a great club crew but they were no match for the squaddies and an “easily” verdict is a reflection of the gulf that exists between club and international standard athletes. The GB girls (racing as Imperial College and Tees) were delighted with the win, but frankly it would’ve been an embarrassment if it had been anything less than a comfortable victory. The real victory was for Molesey in reaching the final.
Again, I do have grave concerns about the validity of this event as an “open” category when the international representation is so poor (and has been for the past few years). I think there are two ways to improve this;
1. Make it an Intermediate event with the same rules as the Prince of Wales
2. Ban composites
The first option would open the event up to the top-end clubs and U23’s and actually make the racing more exciting. The 2nd option could mean that the GB athletes actually get to race for their clubs and with their clubmates (although I would expect that the GB coaches would veto this idea to avoid disruption in the run-up to Lucerne). But I believe something needs to fundamentally change with this event as it’s in danger of losing its relevance as a contest. My preference is to make it an intermediate level event – the first in the regatta. I think this would make the racing more exciting and may also persuade a few more US or European university crews to stay on after Henley Women’s Regatta to try and “do the double”.
The Stewards Challenge Cup at least provided some interesting competition. The biggest interest, to those of us who follow the international rowing scene, was the first performance by the new South African M4- which included two of the Olympic lightweight gold medallists, John Smith and Sizwe Ndlovu – now bulking up to heavyweight. We were warned not to expect too much from the South Africans in their first outing and in the end they were overwhelmed by the British European champions. In the final the British faced the Greeks (who had finished 2nd to them at the Europeans). For the Greeks it was a major achievement just to be on the start line. Such are the financial difficulties for the Greek rowing federation that they could only afford to send the crew to either Henley or Lucerne, not both. At Henley they were racing in a borrowed boat and, what looked like, GB team blades. In the end they were overwhelmed by the British power despite some distinctly dodgy steering from Alan Sinclair in the bow seat.
In the Remenham it was always going to end up as a GB v Canada battle. The British looked really good at the 2nd World Cup in Varese and also looked strong in despatching the Oxford Women’s Blue Boat in their semi-final. But when it came to the final the old inconsistencies re-emerged for the British. They tried to out-muscle the Canadians and failed. When the Canadians started to pull ahead, rowing more efficiently than the British, the response was to try and muscle it even more rather than improving the efficiency and smoothness. As a result they let the Canadians break contact and win at their leisure. This will be a big blow to the British who had been getting more and more confident that they could start really challenging the Canadians and US for gold and silver. If they row to their strengths they have that ability, but they need to improve their consistency. Lucerne is going to be a massive test of resolve for the British if they want to test the North Americans.
If the result in the Remenham was disappointing for British supporters the Grand was the complete opposite. When the draw was announced some were a little surprised that it was the German’s and not the British who got the bye to the final. But as it turned out it was a masterstroke for the British. In the semi-final they faced Tim Mclaren’s new Aussie eight in what was described as the “Ashes on the water”. In their first international appearance the Aussies were out-raced and out-gunned. The British drew steadily away from the Aussies and coming through the Enclosures they were able to hold a lead of nearly 2 lengths over the Australians rating a sedate 34 to the Australian’s 38-39.
This meant the British would indeed face their arch-rivals, the Germans, in the final. So far this season its one-all, with the British grabbing a narrow victory in Varese. For Henley the British had made one change to the crew at Varese with Stan Louloudis returning to the boat having finished his Oxford exams. The stage was set for what many were expecting to be a titanic battle. Off the start the Germans grabbed an early lead and tried to dominate the British. But this GB crew held the charge and then overhauled the Germans. The power that the British put down was pretty awe-inspiring. The Germans had no answer to the power of the British and they weren’t helped by some idiosyncratic steering from Martin Sauer. In the end the British delivered their biggest victory over the Germans for years. This will be a massive psychological boost for the British heading into Lucerne, not just the fact they won, but the manner of the victory will have sent a big message to the rest of the world.
If some of the entries in the Open events were a little disappointing then the Intermediate events certainly picked up the slack. The Ladies Plate promised to be one of the best contests for years with Washington, Princeton and Yale coming over from the USA to face a star-studded Melbourne 8 and the best of British in the shape of Leander. In the end both Washington and Yale progressed to the final with the closest battle being Yale’s 2/3rds of a length victory over Leander in the semi-final. The word on the towpath was that Washington would win at a canter, Yale had, of course missed out on the Grand Final at the IRA championships which the Huskies had won. But the Bulldogs had other ideas and had a huge point to prove following the debacle at the IRA’s.
Even when Yale grabbed an early lead, the talk in the Press Box was that they had gone too hard, too early and the Huskies would hunt them down. But Yale didn’t blow, instead they rowed away from Washington who looked, in the words of one of the watching US journalists, “very flat”. At the line Yale ran-out winners by 2 ¼ lengths handing the Huskies their heaviest defeat for years. As they approached the line one of the watching hacks said “watch out, this is going to be loud” and indeed the celebrations were pretty spectacular. Speaking to the crew afterwards there was a certain amount of disbelief not only in the victory itself, but in the margin of that victory. Brit Sholto Carnegie was wide-eyed with amazement in the boat tents and kept looked as though he thought it was a dream! Henley is a special place for the Oxford-born Freshman, this was his third Henley regatta and his third Henley medal.
The final of the Visitors Challenge Cup, the first race on finals day, was not without controversy. It was a US v Australia battle with the University of California, Berkeley taking on the Sydney Rowing Club. There’s was an epic contest all the way down the course with Cal equalling the Fawley record as they opened a length lead over the Australians. At the finish Cal crossed the line 1 ¾ lengths to the good. But Sydney lodged a complaint that they had been impeded by Cal. The Umpire, Richard Phelps, heard the appeal but dismissed it saying both crews were in neutral water.
In the Prince of Wales it was business as usual with Leander winning for the 6th consecutive year. Nick Middleton has been in 4 of those winning crews and Jack Beaumont 3. The Leander club astride this event like a Colossus and have been in the final 13 out of the 15 years the event has been running. In the final they beat the Leander/Oxford Brookes U23 lightweight quad, breaking clear along Remenham Farm and opening out to 2 lengths after Fawley, but the lightweights refused to let them get away any further and crossed the line just under 2 lengths adrift.
In the club events there were hugely emotional scenes as Thames finally got to win their namesake trophy for the first time in over 80 years. There has been much criticism of Thames in the past few years as “chokers”, getting close to winning before failing at the final hurdle. This year however, with a record equalling four crews in the event, the momentum was with the Putney club. As they crossed the line having destroyed the German’s from Bayer Leverkusen, one of the crew was heard to shout “Chokers my arse!”
In the Wyfolds it was an all British final with last year’s beaten finalists Tideway Scullers again coming up short. This year it was Molesey who broke TSS’s hearts with a controlled 2 length victory. This event went pretty much with the form book, in my preview I had predicted a Molesey v Scullers final with a win for Molesey….and so it proved….which makes me feel very smug!
Despite some good racing I’m still not a fan of the Britannia as a club coxed four event. I still want to see it swapped for a club quad race. But, this year Sydney were the class of the field with only having one race (v Nottingham on Wednesday) that had a verdict of less than 4 lengths. In the final they were untroubled by Thames and crossed the line 4 lengths ahead, giving their strokeman, Matt Dignan the perfect birthday present.
The Temple Challenge cup delivered the race of the regatta on Friday with Nereus taking on Oxford Brookes. Brookes were the defending champions and many people’s favourites to take the title.
The race became an epic. Nereus established an early lead equalling the record to the Barrier and to Fawley where they led Brookes by over a length. But, Brookes are fearsome racers and relish the challenge of overhauling their opponents. Led by cox harry Brightmore they launched wave after wave of attacks against the Dutch. But the line came too soon for the British, they managed to close within a few feet coming past the progress board but the Amsterdam students responded and just held on to cross the line ahead by a canvas. Up in the Press Box there was a total sense of disbelief when it was announced that Nereus had won in a time of 6:03….9 seconds inside the previous record. Breaking a record by that sort of margin is almost unheard of at Henley. Martin Cross could barely contain his excitement saying it was rowings “Bob Beaman moment”. What is all the more remarkable is that Nereus were only equal to the previous record at Fawley. The 9 seconds they broke the record by all came in the 2nd half of the race. I calculated that Nereus did Fawley to the finish in 3:05, the record in the Grand for the same distance is 3:01. Brookes for their part were also well inside the old record, indeed, given they were almost a length down at Fawley they probably covered the Fawley to finish section in something like 3:03….it was astonishing racing. In the end the final turned into a bit of an anti-climax with the Universitie de Lyon being overwhelmed by the Dutch who ran out winners by almost 5 lengths.
It would’ve been fascinating to have seen both Nereus and Brookes racing in the Ladies Plate as they were both a class above the rest of the field in the Temple. I would’ve loved to have seen them go head-to-head with the likes of Washington, Princeton and Yale.
Whereas the Britannia Cup was a bit of an anti-climax, the other coxed four event, the Prince Albert Challenge Cup delivered some excellent racing and also the closest finish of the day on Sunday. It was another Yale v Washington contest and the two crews went toe-to-toe all the way down the course with the lead changing hands several times. It was only really when the crews were passing the Fawley stand that Washington were finally able to take charge of the race and make a decisive break crossing the line a length to the good. Some consolation perhaps for the Huskies after the defeat of their Varsity 8.
The Princess Elizabeth is always one of the most popular events at the Regatta with huge levels of support in the enclosures. This year it was all about Westminster going for the Triple. They faced some stiff competition in the top half of the draw with tough wins against Phillips Andover and Gonzaga from the US. In the bottom half of the draw St Pauls’ had no such trouble and looked the class of the field. The despatched former champions Abingdon on day one (the first time that had happened in living memory) and had an untroubled run to the final. Watching both crews during the week I thought St Pauls’ looked more powerful and smoother than Westminster. In the final Westminster were never in it. The St Paul’s carried on with the superb smooth and powerful strokes that they had been displaying all week to spoil Westminster’s hopes of an historic Triple. At the finish Paul’s crossed the line nearly 2 lengths to the good. For Westminster defeat was very bitter and some of the language used after they had crossed the line perhaps reflected that bitter disappointment 😉
The favourites for the Fawley Challenge Cup, Sir William Boarlase had a real scare in the semi-final against Glasgow Academy. Both these crews had broken the record on the previous day, off the start Borlase’s strokeman, Chris Lawrie caught a crab. Luckily he was able to regain control (unlike Seb Devereux in the Leander Fawley quad in 2013 who broke his rigger when catching a crab off the start). Glasgow capitalised on the mistake by Borlase to move out to over a length’s lead. But there was still almost 2000 metres left to run and Borlase set off in pursuit eventually overhauling the Scots passing the Progress Board to win by a canvas. In the final they faced Nottingham who had comfortably despatched the Germans from Frankfurt in the semi final. This time there was no drama for Borlase who withstood an early challenge from Nottingham to open a clear water lead and win the title for the third time in four years.
There was a real sense of déjà vu in the final of the Diamond Jubilee Challenge Cup. Gloucester and Marlow faced a repeat of last year’s final. Both crews had three of the same athletes from their 2014 crews returning. Marlow leapt off the start and quickly established an early lead. Gloucester are a highly experienced unit and one of their hallmarks is keeping calm under pressure. They checked Marlow’s progress and then between the Barrier and Fawley began to reel them in with a brilliant display of controlled power sculling. Approaching the Regatta Enclosure they got their bows in front and ignited the turbos to draw away from the tiring Marlow crew crossing the line just under 2 lengths to the good.
So those were my thoughts on the racing. Overall I think it was a fantastic regatta although finals day was a little flat after some of the fireworks of the previous 4 days. The race of the regatta for me was a tie between Nereus breaking Brookes in the Temple and smashing the record in the process, and the GB men’s 8 giving the German’s a right going over. Let me know your favourite moment in the comments section below.
I’m already looking forward to next year and hopefully more of the superb video coverage. With 2016 in mind it’ll be a real challenge for the new Chairman, Sir Steve Redgrave, to get decent entries in the open events as all the national teams (including GB) will be in preparation for Rio…..perhaps he can persuade those countries who don’t qualify boats for the Olympics to come and have a play on the Thames….we shall see.