The sporting and social pinnacle of any Trinity Term, Summer Eights is set for a competition as compelling as any in recent years.
After a double triumph for Oxford rowers at The Boat Race in April, the University is as enthused by rowing as it has ever been.
Huge crowds are expected at the river throughout the event. By the time you read this, the competition will be reaching its dramatic climax; with two days gone and two to go.
In the men’s first division, there is increasing hope of breaking off the traditional one-two of the Magdalen and Pembroke boats.
Magdalen’s dominance of college rowing in recent years always needs re-stating, if only to remind us of the enormity of their achievement. Victors at Eights in 2007, 2006 and 2005, and at Torpids this year, they have established a mastery of college rowing contests that defines the rest of the competition.
Pembroke are used to being the Nadal to Magdalen’s Federer: exceptional in their own right, but always in the shadow of a true great. They finished second in Eights in 2007 and 2006 and in Torpids earlier this year. Unlike Nadal, however, they do not have an equivalent of the French Open, a hinterland where they remain unchallenged. Second place behind Magdalen is always a good result.
Although Balliol bumped Pembroke on Wednesday, Oriel also seem set for a challenge. Captain David Woods is confident that they can cause an upset, telling Cherwell that ‘anything can happen in bumps racing,’ and that ‘there’s only one result we’ll be happy with.
Since 1972, Oriel have only finished one year without a Headship, in 1991, and after the disappointment of Torpids, we do not intend to make this a second.’
One place behind Oriel, and only slightly less bullish, is University College. Their captain, Johnny Bray, claims that his team ‘have been working hard and have come on a long way.’
He described his squad as ‘confident in its abilities,’ and ‘looking forward to showing Oxford you don’t need a boat full of blues to move fast.’ Both Oriel and Univ will be hoping to hold off the challenge of Christ Church, whose boat of rowing galacticos could bump both of them in their pursuit of the leaders.
Christ Church uses American graduate students from Kellogg College, and as such are guaranteed to push the overall standard of the division even higher this weekend.
Struggling to stay in Division 1 is Worcester College, and Karel Kac is under no illusions as to the scale of the challenge they face. At Torpids last term Worcester plummeted from fifth in Division 1 to third in Division 2 over the four days, and Kac describes his team as ‘determined to change the bad impression’ they left then.
With regard to this weekend’s rowing, Kac acknowledged that ‘because Worcester bumped up so many times during the last three years, our position in the first division is quite high relative to our experience. We do not expect to perform as well as Worcester did during the last years, but we expect to be more competitive than we were in Torpids and try to defend our position.’
And on the first day of competition New College, starting at the head of Division 2, bumped Worcester. This promises to be a successful tournament for New. Former GB rowers Stephen Bechdale and Rollo Hoare form the backbone of the team, and alongside returning Blues Ollie Whitby and Matt Phipps they could well surge up Division 1.
The Women’s Division 1 promises to be more open than the men’s. Three of the top four placed boats from Hilary Term’s Torpids, St. Catherine’s, Oriel and The Queen’s College, are all starting from Division 2.
This leaves only Christ Church , starting from second place this week , one place above their finish last term. But captain Jenny Vass was modest in the build-up to Eights, hoping that Christ Church ‘do ourselves justice’ and ‘make it a race worth watching.’ Somerville, starting two places behind Christ Church, have had issues with personnel leading up to Eights.
Finals and other commitments have torn the heart out of their team, leaving a serious challenge for Head of the River status unlikely.
More likely to race up the standings is Merton College, whose ‘mixture of blues, experienced Bumps racers and new talent’ gives confidence to their Stroke, Naomi Pollock. After a Division 2 finish to Torpids last term, Pollock hopes her team ‘re-establish ourselves as a strong Division 1 crew.’
Controversy has struck the tournament’s build-up though, with New College’s failure to register all of their boats at the initial captains’ meetings.
Captain of Lower Boats James Reid missed the deadline imposed by OURCS by two hours, thus forcing the reconvening of an emergency second captains’ meeting on Monday evening. New College’s M2, M3 and M4, as well as Lady Margaret Hall’s M3 and M4 and Pembroke College’s M6 and M7 were all originally threatened with expulsion after this rule breach, although all boats have been accepted into the competition.
Summer Eights is about more than just the elite though. There will be 158 boats competing in a total of 13 divisions across the tournament.
This equates to over 1000 rowers, making it by far the largest sporting event in Oxford’s sporting calendar. They will be relieved to hear, however, that the glorious sunshine of the first few days of the week will disappear, for a more refreshing turn this weekend.
The light showers predicted for both Friday and Saturday may, however, be to the frustration of the hundreds of students expected to turn up to watch.