Friday brought the ever-eventful press conference, where hungry journalists try and extract as much information from the coach, president and cox of each boat club as possible. Not just an official affair, it allows for some humanisation of the athletes and teams, and a welcome break from training for the athletes. The press conference consists of five 15-minute slots to house OUWBC, CUWBC, CUBC, OUBC and the umpires.
It was OUWBC who were first to the stage in a rather underwhelming episode. It seemed as though nobody in the crowd was too interested to hear what coach Andy Nelder and cox/president Eleanor Shearer had to say. Andy commented that the week had been good, and that they were fully prepared for whatever the weekend brings them. While they aren’t the favourites, Oxford won’t go quietly, and their steely resolve was clear today.
Cambridge on the other hand were the absolute opposite. The trio of coach Robert Weber, cox Hugh Spaughton and president Abigail Parker were relaxed and totally at ease amongst the crowd. The blue boat and blondie combined have 7 PhD students in the squad among other tough degrees, which really highlights the amount of dedication and time management which goes into competing at one of the top academic universities in the world. Abigail said “you can do both [academics and rowing] but it does mean you need to plan your time. My supervisor knows rowing and is really positive about it, that I do a lot of lab work and can’t do that here.”
There were a couple of questions about the race which Robert was very positive about; he mentioned some good results in the fixtures and that they are controlling the controllable. The trio were so relaxed the discussion even moved towards what films the crew (who are all staying together in one house currently) will watch in the coming days, when not training which just highlights not only how in control of the situation the Cambridge women are to be this relaxed, but also that they appreciate the benefits of not worrying before the event and letting nerves get the better of them. The best of luck to both women’s crews, and to Cambridge on their Pirates of the Caribbean viewing later.
The first of the men’s crews up were Cambridge, and it was clear that James Cracknell was going to be a key discussion point from all the new journalists who had just appeared. Coach Rob Baker, cox Matthew Holland and president Dara Alizadeh, just like their women’s squad, were calm and collected as soon as they entered. Rob Baker spoke about the Brookes fixture and said: “We got a lot out of it; we got some confidence in our speed, we got a full course of side-by-side where there was never clear water between the two crews and we got our clash practice.”
It didn’t take long for Cracknell’s radio appearances and personal life to be brought up, and whether or not that has been a distraction to the crew, to which Rob Baker said: “I think the squad has dealt with it really well, and James has dealt with it really well. He doesn’t seek it out it’s part of his work because of the work he has done. The guys understood that it would be a part of the year and have dealt with it.” Rob only had positive words for James, continuing by saying “I’ve met no-one better at compartmentalising their lives and being able to focus on the task at hand than James – he’s incredibly good at that.” From within the boat both Dara and Matthew reinforced that this year’s crew is fully determined and extremely hungry to do well; Matthew said “[the crew] is like an elastic band, stretching and stretching and stretching, and come race day it just pings. I’ve not been in a crew where I’ve had such unbelievable confidence where I can ask for 10 big strokes, and it can just take off.” Matthew of course coxed the CUWBC crew to victory in 2017 and he mentioned that “I’ve not noticed any difference between them being men and women, for me it’s the different characters and personalities in the crew, they’re just different people.”
When asked about the boats’ 7/6 bucket, Rob simply said “it works”, dispelling any worries about power imbalances, stating clearly that he is “not concerned”. Finally, from Cambridge, we can confirm that Dave Bell’s “The People’s Champion” callsign is something he himself has brought to the crew, and not even the cox Matthew was entirely sure about it. The Oxford men were very different to their women, with coach Sean Bowden, president Felix Drinkall and cox Toby de Mendonca being much more relaxed and akin to the Cambridge men. However, only the second question, inquiring about what they have learnt from their various fixtures, prompted Sean to say “Well we’re probably not fast enough. Some good stuff at times, but some pretty bad stuff as well.”
Of course, the questioning inevitably shifted back towards James Cracknell, with Drinkall being asked what motivation there is to beat a crew that includes James Cracknell. Felix calmly responded with “No, we are here to beat Cambridge, and whoever they put in their crew doesn’t matter.” Other journalists pressed about possible advantages to Oxford that James has been making radio appearances and spending time away from his crew, to which Sean simply suggested that it’s his choice and he has prepared to do so appropriately. Continuing the scathing line of questioning, the bookies’ odds of 1/5 Oxford winning were met with Sean saying that they only need to win once and not five times – Sean was undoubtedly prepared for this line of questioning and answered in a very collected manner, giving off the impression that he is comfortable that his crew have worked as hard as they can to get to their level and that he isn’t disappointed in their progress.
When asked about the decision to have Patrick Sullivan quite recently switch sides, Sean replied: “He’s swapped sides twice already this year. We looked for an opportunity to make the boat faster, so we thought we’d give it a run, we tested it and already on the first day he was back to a good enough level". As Sean pointed out, Tobias Schröder who sits at 5 had never rowed bowside before last year. The cox Toby stayed quiet, as of course he is a very last-minute substitution for Anna Carbery, who now isn’t even coxing the Isis crew.
Finally, after the athletes, it was the turn of women’s race umpire Richard Phelps and men’s race umpire Rob Clegg to join the stage. Both have umpired fixtures with the crews already, and although many journalists had by this point left, there was some insightful questioning. Rob spoke about getting to know the coxes before the race, saying that the fixtures aren’t always the best way to evaluate the coxes, as shown by the Brookes/Cambridge fixture, as the challenging coxes always want to have a crack at the blue boat coxes, traditionally being slightly more aggressive. But he did note that he “wants to see how quickly the coxes are going to move, whether they listen to you the first time or after warnings, so you get a feel for them.” Richard agreed entirely, saying that “I know where they'll steer off the line, I know where the line is, and I know which station I’d like them to be on.” Richard also said that “both coxes I have umpired at fixtures to date have been good [at responding], but fixtures are fixtures and the race is a race, I’m sure will want to be seen not to be giving anything away. However, both coxes I’m umpiring (Eleanor Shearer and Hugh Spaughton) have demonstrated the ability to move quickly and gently, and that’s all that an umpire could want.” Rob simply, and with great wisdom, said, “they can always move faster.”