This weekend sees one of the biggest events in the British rowing calendar – The Head of the River Race. First raced in 1926 it was created by the legendary Steve Fairbairn to alleviate the boredom of winter training and give his charges something to aim for in the “off” season. Now it’s become a goal in itself. For oarsmen across Britain it’s the main focus for the winter season. It has also become symbolic as the end of winter and the start of the regatta season.
So who are the crews to watch this year….
Brookes capitalised on the absence of the GB squad rowers last year to take their first ever headship. That marked the start of an outstanding season for Richard Spratley’s men which culminated in a win at Henley Royal Regatta. This year they’ve had some great races against both the Oxford and Cambridge Blue Boats and have dominated every head race they’ve raced in. Their crew for this year’s race has been strengthened with the addition of two former World Champions in Matt Tarrant and Joel Cassells along with a boat load of U23 internationals. They will be very, very strong contenders to retain the headship.
Such is the strength of the Brookes squad (very reminiscent of the University of London in its heyday of the late 70’s and early 80’s), that their 2nd VIII will be disappointed if they fail to take a top 5 spot. They are a “proper” student crew and will be odds on favourites to take the University pennant.
Leander have two top boats taking aim at Brookes. Leander I (starting 2nd) is a boat full of their top sweep athletes, with Olympic champion Will Satch and fellow Olympian Stewart Innes. They are joined by a number of former U23 internationals and names that we could well see appearing in the GB squad during this Olympiad – the likes of Jacob Dawson and Matt Rossiter.
Leander II is an exciting-looking boat – it’s a “scullers” crew including a number of the British sculling team from Rio. John Collins and Jonno Walton from the M2X and Jack Beaumont & Pete Lambert from the M2X along with Will Fletcher from the LM2X. Also in the crew is GB international Nick Middleton and U23 international Frazier Christie. Starting 7th it’ll be fun to see whether the Leander Sweepers or Scullers take the bragging rights. I have a sneaking suspicion that the Scullers may get the better of the sweepers!
Molesey welcome back Olympic Champion, Moe Sbihi to their Head of the River crew. He’s joined by 2015 lightweight world champion Sam Scrimgeour. Also in the crew are Alistair Douglass and George Stewart who were the fastest U23 pair at last month’s GB trials.
Thames have had a great couple of years, victory in the Thames Cup at Henley in 2015 was followed by a win in the Visitors Challenge Cup last year. At last year’s Head they finished a superb 3rd, their best result since 1961. This year’s boat contains just one member of their 2015 Thames Cup winning crew – James Palmer. They finished 3rd at this year’s Reading University Head, and will probably be favourites to retain the Vernon Trophy (for the fastest Tideway Club crew).
Starting 5th are Imperial College. There top student boat includes four that won Champ 4X at the BUCS Head of the River earlier this month (Harry Uglow, Toby Heaton, Ollie Hines & Tristan Vouilloz). The rest of the crew (Alex Ball, Ed Bentley, Jon Edwards & Tiby Heaton) raced in the Champ 4- at BUCS but were disappointed with a 7th place. As an 8 they trailed in 3rd behind Edinburgh and UL. Imperial also have a non-Student boat racing. In this crew is former GB lightweight stalwart Adam Freeman-Pask. He’s joined by a number of guys who have made the long journey from the club next door – Thames! James Padmore, Anthony Lester and Nicholas Turnbull. Also in the crew is former U23 silver medallist Wilf Kimberley.
Starting back in 16th are the BUCS Head champions Edinburgh. They include half of the U23 LM4X World Champion winning crew; Gavin Horsburgh and Matthew Curtis, these two were also part of the M4+ that won the Prince Albert Challenge Cup at Henley last year. Also in the crew is U23 silver medallist Calum Irvine and 2015 junior world champion Josh Armstrong. The Scots are probably the best University crew in the country – apart from Oxford Brookes that is!
Starting one place ahead of Edinburgh are their perennial rivals, Newcastle. They finished 4th at the BUCS Head and they have their share of international experience, Oliver Varley was a crewmate to Horsburgh and Curtis in the gold medal U23 LM4X. Also in the boat is U23 silver medallist James Rudkin along with U23 international Ollie Knight. Their battle with Edinburgh is going to be exciting.
University of London
In the 1970’s and 80’s UL were the dominant force in European university rowing, they were rarely out of the top 3 at the Head of the River. Those glory days are now over, but this year’s crew has already produced some strong results. They are starting 8th as the first Intermediate 1 crew. So far this season they’ve produced a strong 2nd to Edinburgh at the BUCS Head and were 4th at the Hammersmith Head. Their crew contains three old Abingdonians (which I always like to see being an OA myself!) Whilst they don’t quite have some of the international pedigree of Edinburgh or Newcastle, they have shown excellent speed and will be pushing Edinburgh and the Brookes 2nd 8 for the University pennant.
Whilst the Head of the River is the highlight of the winter season for British crews, it also attracts a large number of crews from overseas. This year no fewer than 36 overseas crews have entered from 9 different countries – Germany (15 crews), Ireland (7 crews), Switzerland (7 crews) Portugal (2 crews) and 1 from Norway, France, Italy, Poland and the USA.
The pick of the overseas crews are probably Bayer Leverkusen of Germany. Their crew includes double Olympic medallist, Max Reinelt at 7 along with fellow senior internationals Hannes Heppner and Max Bandel.
Another crew to watch out for include UL Tyrian (start number 109) including Olympic champion Paul Bennett at 6.
So, who will win….my money is on Brookes to retain the Headship with the two Leander crews in hot pursuit (with the Scullers boat getting the better of the Sweepers). One of the big questions is whether Brookes 2nd 8 can win the University pennant ahead of Edinburgh, UL and Imperial. I think the Scots will just pip them.
So, my top 5 is:
Oxford Brookes I
Oxford Brookes II
All we have to do now is pray to the weather gods to play nice!