Issue 97 - March 1997
Oxford hired their first professional, Steve Royle, to start after the mutiny of 1987. Cambridge followed with Mark Lees. Mike Rosewell traces the pros in charge of the Blues.
The arrival of Dutchman Rene Mijnders as Oxford's new professional coach for the 143rd Boat Race has, predictably, caused some media interest. But money changing hands for coaching expertise is nothing new in the Boat Race world.
The concept of 'Old Blues' taking a fortnight off from their City jobs to bring on the new generation out of the kindness of their hearts is a nice gentlemanly idea, but, for many years now, it has not been the way that the Light and Dark Blues have been prepared for their 4 1/4 mile contest. Professionalism, in all its shades of meaning, is now necessary and Mijnders is only the latest in a long line of men, and one woman, who have been paid for their services.
Before the arrival of specific coaching appointments in the 1980s, the university boatmen invariably spent much of their time coaching rather than just looking after the equipment, a classic example of this being Cambridge's Alf Twinn who coached many a crew between 1934 and 1981. Cambridge took an initial move by using Bob Janousek in an advisory capacity in 1984 and 1985, and employed a New Zealander, David Henry, to coach their 1987 crew. It was 1988, however, when both universities 'bit the bullet' and went for full-time paid coaches.
Oxford went the whole hog that year, employing Steve Royle, who had earlier coached Oxford in a voluntary capacity, as director of rowing and Mike Spracklen as chief coach for their 1988 crew. In the autumn of the year, Cambridge employed Mark Lees, who had already proven his worth at Notts County and London University. Lees was in charge at Cambridge for the '89, '90 and '91 races. For the first two of these years, Pat Sweeney, a British international coxswain, held the reins at Oxford, and for the 1991 race John Wilson replaced him.
At this point, Oxford had not been beaten since 1986, and, to some people's surprise, John Wilson switched camps, moving to Cambridge to coach jointly with another Notts County coach, Sean Bowden. They produced a good crew that year, following on from the basis that had been set up by Lees, but Oxford won again, Pat Sweeney having returned to the Oxford post with help from East German Jurgen Grobler. The two coaching teams remained unchanged in 1993, although both camps brought in extra 'finishing coaches', Mike Spracklen at Oxford and a New Zealand newcomer to the scene, Harry Mahon, at Cambridge. Cambridge won and understandably kept to the same coaching team in 1994.
Oxford made changes, though Steve Royle was, and still is, there in the background, but 1994 saw Oxford employ Richard Tinkler and Tim Bramfitt, the unfortunate duo who had their responsibility for the crew taken from them just before the race. Cambridge won.
1995 was 'all change year'. John Wilson and Sean Bowden moved on and Robin Williams, a quiet perfectionist from London RC, took over Cambridge, and, with continued help from 'advisers' Harry Mahon and Australian Tim McLaren, has not lost a Boat Race since. Williams has also had the invaluable assistance of Ian Dryden and Vladimir Bachev, officially responsible for equipment but not averse to a touch of coaching. The arrival of Williams at Cambridge in the autumn of 1994 followed a summer of heart searching at Oxford which resulted in the appointment of Penny Chuter, Britain's former national coach, as Oxford's chief coach and the return of Dan Topolski in a finishing coach role. Success eluded the Dark Blues, though, and hence the arrival of the Dutchman, Mijnders, for this year's race.
Today will show whether the coach of the Dutch Olympic gold medal eight can break Williams's spell. 'We'll win anyhow - sometime.'
© Copyright M. Rosewell, 1997.
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