Umpire Richard Phelps was defiant: “If you want a nice, easy, clean boat race, go to Lucerne and race it in July.” Many of those huddled on the banks of the Thames under grey skies and drizzling rain wouldn’t exactly be averse to the suggestion.
Phelps, however, was referring not to the April showers but to the major talking point of the race: the clash of oars that saw Cambridge number two seat Luke Juckett briefly thrown from his seat. In the 160th BNY Mellon Boat Race, a contest in which Oxford were already overwhelming favourites, it was this incident – five minutes into the race – which finally put the contest beyond a valiant Cambridge crew. Oxford ultimately triumphed by the mammoth margin of eleven lengths, with a time of 18 minutes and 36 seconds – the most decisive Boat Race victory since 1973.
Cambridge faced an uphill battle from the start. Oxford, able to call on three Olympic rowers and the unmatched experience of coach Sean Bowden, presented a formidable opposition. Meanwhile, the Dark Blues’ dominant performances in pre-race contests against Molesey, Leander and the German U23 crew offered their opponents little in the way of encouragement. As if that were not enough, the Dark Blues won the toss, electing to take up their position on the Surrey station.
Nevertheless, the early stages of the race were tight and tense – Oxford initially took a marginal lead, only for Cambridge to claw back the lost ground, using their advantage around the Middlesex bend to good effect. Disaster, however, lay just around the corner for the Cambridge crew. Such was the intensity of competition in these early stages that a clash of oars was always a possibility – umpire Richard Phelps was forced to issue warnings to both boats. When the clash did come, in Phelps’ own words, “the contact was slight but the impact was great”; the Cambridge crew will feel its reverberations for weeks and months to come. The oar of Sam O’Connor, the Oxford 7-seat, clipped that of the unfortunate Luke Juckett. Juckett came off worse, catching a crab, as he was knocked out of his seat, his rigger badly damaged. From hereon in, there could be only one winner.
The Oxford crew, like all great sportsmen, were ruthless, never easing up, refusing to allow complacency to creep in. Cambridge battled on valiantly, cox Ian Middleton urging his men to believe the game was not up, but as the gap grew and grew – reaching five lengths by Chiswick Steps – his barking seemed ever more futile. When the triumphant Dark Blues did cross the finish line at Putney Bridge, they had extended their lead to eleven lengths. An immediate Cambridge appeal, claiming that Oxford were at fault for the clash, was quickly rejected by umpire Phelps, who maintained that “Oxford were on their proper station, quite clearly”. There was, then, to be no divine intervention for Cambridge.
Despite Bowden’s post-race claim that the outcome would most likely have been the same without Juckett’s crab-catching, the reality is that for all Oxford’s talent and experience, this looked to be a fairly tight encounter – albeit one in which Oxford looked on the verge of pulling away – until its course was irreversibly determined by the clash. The same cannot be said for the race between Oxford’s reserve boat, Isis, and their Cambridge opponents, Goldie. This, though admittedly bereft of summer Lucerne sunshine, was a contest as clean as straightforward as they come – and one from which Isis emerged with an incredible thirteen-length lead.
Cambridge coach Steve Trapmore billed this as a “David versus Goliath” clash. However, he and his crew found out in the harshest possible way that for most would-be Davids there is no happy ending. At the end of a triumphant Varsity Boat Race series – with victories across the board for Oxford’s male and female rowers – “the river”, as Oxford stroke Constantine Louloudis put it, “is running dark blue”.
For Cherwell’s coverage of the Boat Race as it happened, see here.