A stunning Summer Eights performance from Balliol College saw them seize the men’s headship for the first time in over half a century. Thousands of spectators lined the banks of the Isis last Saturday to see the victorious crew squeak past Oriel, whilst Teddy Hall retained the women’s headship with a thoroughly dominant display.
It was a worthy finish to one of the most competitive Summer Eights contests in recent years, climaxing with the two leading men’s crews on the river battling it out stroke for stroke down the finishing straight.
Roaring past the boathouses, the powerful Oriel crew had pushed right up on Balliol and were soon overlapping them by a foot. Balliol cox Zhan Su however bravely steered his boat away from its hot pursuers as his crew held their advantage all the way up to the line, sending their chasing supporters racing joyously back down the riverbank with their arms triumphantly aloft.
By all accounts it was a deserved victory for an experienced crew who enjoyed a sensational blade-winning performance at Torpids earlier this year, confirming the club’s dominance throughout this year. Although much of the pre-race hype had focused on a Christ Church crew stacked with Blues oarsmen and an Oriel boat that included 36-year-old American World Cup gold medalist Michael Wherley, Balliol demonstrated outstanding technique and rhythm bordering on the sheer mechanical to go the head for the first time since the spring of 1956.
It marked the end of Magdalen’s own stranglehold on the headship since 2004, as they slid down to a disappointing fourth place on the river, whilst the hotly-tipped Pembroke also dropped from second to fifth after breaking their rudder on the first day. The fall of both crews, both extremely talented, can be attributed chiefly to an impeccable standard of Eights at the top of the men’s division unseen in recent years.
There was a similar show of immaculate rowing in the Women’s Division I, with much of the praise deservingly being showered on what proved once again to be a formidable Teddy Hall crew. Racing to retain the headship, the result was quite simply never in doubt, as they comfortably outclassed the boats behind them with an exhibition of strength that no-one in the division could match.
Finishing off the week as they had started it – ahead of Christ Church – their captain Helen Taylor was absolutely delighted with finishing head of the river for the third successive year. ‘It’s absolutely incredible,’ she said. ‘We didn’t expect to be able to row that well.’
Reflecting on the margin of their victory on a windy last day, she admitted: ‘I don’t know where that came from. We had been rowing well all week, but that last row-over just felt so good. It’s amazing.’
As the winning crews toasted their success however, others were forced to ponder a more subdued Summer Eights. Amongst the disappointed men’s crews were Keble, who suffered the indignity of ‘spoons’ having being bumped down every day from seventh to eleventh on the river. Exeter only escaped the dubious award themselves by holding off Wadham on the final day to cling onto the last spot in Men’s Division I.
Meanwhile Worcester were left thanking their lucky stars, having fulfilled all the pessimistic pre-Eights predictions by being comprehensibly bumped on the first three days. Having dropped a horrifying ten places down the river during Torpids last term, they were saved from their second successive set of spoons when Trinity were bumped just as they were closing in on them, securing blades for a veteran Wolfson crew who were the stand-out boat of Division II.
Amongst the women, it was Somervile who went home with a new set of cutlery, as they plummeted from fourth to eighth in Women’s Division I, whilst their rivals Osler-Green rose two places to third.
Climbing back into Oxford rowing’s top tier was a rejuvenated New College M1, although much of the limelight was dedicated to the progress of the galactico oarsmen in Christ Church’s boat. Brimming with Blues and American graduate students from their affiliated Kellogg College, the aptly nicknamed ‘Gunship’ even paddled up to the start on the first day uniformly clad in khaki vests and tin helmets.
Despite three bumps over the course of the week however, they were to be denied blades after Oriel caught Pembroke ahead of them on the second day.
It would prove to be the major talking point of this year’s Summer Eights, after it later emerged that Oriel had in fact subbed in their coach, former Great Britain rower Henry Bailhache-Webb, after one of their rowers was struck down by illness – despite Webb having never studied at Oxford University.
The controversy saw both the Pembroke and Christ Church men’s crews taking to the water on the third day wearing t-shirts reading ‘I’m at Oxford,’ as Oriel received loud choruses of boos whenever passing the infuriated spectators around the Pembroke and Christ Church boathouses.
Oriel Men’s Captain David Woods declined to comment, but it is believed that his crew escaped reprimand due to the fact that Webb was subbing in for a current GB rower and so was not technically improving the rowing standard of the boat.
Webb was back to watching from the bank, however, when his crew were later held off by Balliol to round off a truly memorable week.