The Schools’ Head of the River 2015 – Championship Eights

This is the big one. The main event of the spring season is upon us, and one school will be crowned king of the head season. This promises to be a desperately close race, particularly between the Tideway schools of St Paul’s and Westminster – however, Eton, Shrewsbury, Abingdon and a host of other schools will be gunning for that trophy. The only downside to the coming race is that it appears the crews will be rowing into a headwind – if the conditions were fast, I honestly believe more than one competing crew could break the record next week. However, this does not detract from the fact that this promises to be a very exciting and dramatic Schools Head.

Like my other previews, I will go through each crew and offer a short preview, although I will list them in terms of start order, rather than alphabetically.

At the end, I will offer a finish prediction for the entire category.

St Paul’s School

St Paul’s are notoriously strong in the head season; one need only cast a glance back to last year’s 1st VIII to see how St Paul’s really established a dominance in the pre-regatta season. This year’s first eight have largely followed in the footsteps of their preceding crew; coming off the back of some great results at the Head of the Charles and the Head of the Schuylkill, as well as a new record set at Four’s Head, St Paul’s have continued to perform strongly since moving out of matched eights. Paul’s were represented in Nantes at the GB Junior Potential Camp by three athletes: Bertie Woodward-Fisher, David Ambler and Seb Benzecry. At Quintin, they placed 6th overall – second in IMI8+. At the Head of the Nene in Peterborough, St Paul’s won the event outright (granted, there was rather limited competition), and beat the KCS 1st VIII by around 45 seconds. At GB Trials St Paul’s had a strong showing, notably with a fantastic win on the Saturday by Freddie Davidson and David Ambler, who have both demonstrated a good capacity in small boats throughout the year. Eight guys from Paul’s (including their cox) have been invited to Spring Assessments, an impressive feat in itself. The eight then raced at Hammersmith Head, where they lost to Westminster’s 1st VIII by around 5 seconds; this puts St Paul’s perhaps slightly on the back foot, but I’m sure they’ll relish the opportunity in attempting to beat the men in pink. These boys are undoubtedly strong; while they don’t have any particularly groundbreaking ergo scores, their average over the boat puts them in a good position physiologically going into the School’s Head. Led by the massively talented Arthur Doyle, who went to Coupe as a J16 and Worlds the following year, I think these boys have a real shot at the title this coming Monday, providing they have a strong and mature row – and that they don’t let themselves get overwhelmed by the threat of Westminster. Starting first should also be a great advantage for these boys, and should add to the already sizable home water advantage.

St Edward’s School

St Edward’s have perhaps not had the season that they would have been hoping for, considering the number of guys in the 1st VIII who have remained from last year’s very strong boat that came 2nd at SHORR, and that made the final of the PE. While the irrepressible Oli Knight has left the school, newcomer David Willcox has come in with a lot of power and size to match, and I expect Teddies to pick up speed moving into the regatta season. Indeed Willcox has managed to secure himself a place at Spring Assessments in a pair with Alfred Jacquemot from St Paul’s, which is no mean feat considering his background in sculling. However, as of today, Teddies haven’t really shown anything that would suggest they will place even near the top in this event. At the Schuylkill way back in October, a rather lacklustre performance saw them finish just behind Shiplake while the pair of Sam Hamilton-Peach and Willcox failed to produce anything particularly ground-breaking at GB Trials (finishing 22nd on Saturday and 19th on Sunday). Their race at Hammersmith was also poor by their standards- they finished nearly thirty seconds back on Westminster. There are whispers of a struggle to capture form, particularly for some of their top guys, and it’ll be interesting to see if Teddies can pick up the mantle left behind by the previous two eights. I’m sure the performance at Hammersmith has taught them a few lessons and I have no doubt that St Edward’s can grow into a crew that really capitalizes on the fact that they have so many personnel from last year’s boat – however, they have a fair way to go yet, and I don’t think this year will be Teddies’ year at the School’s Head.

Radley College

A year ago, Radley really surprised with their 3rd place finish at SHORR. Radley are often a college that build for Henley, and therefore have their towards the end of the regatta season – it was, then, an exciting and perhaps unexpected turn of events for the club. This year, while I think the competition will be too fierce for the boat to medal, I think these boys should certainly be aiming high. Their eight has performed soundly, winning the J18 category at Head of the Trent and coming 4th overall. At GB trials, three Radley pairs (the fourth had withdrawn due to illness) raced well – the pair of the massive Charlie Elwes and James Murrell, the new guy from Charterhouse, finished 8th on both days, with the other pairs coming in slightly further down the field. At Reading University Head, Radley won the J18 category in Division 1, just beating the Hampton 1st VIII. However, their loss to Eton in the afternoon does suggest that Radley are not currently capable of the speeds required to challenge the likes of St Paul’s and Westminster. They have a big engine room in the form of Elwes and Murrell, who pull 16:09 and 16:55 5Ks respectively, but the talent is perhaps spread more thinly than in boats such as Westminster. This was demonstrated by their performances earlier in the year in matched eights- at BASHER, they really struggled to get into contention with the other school’s matched eights while the Four’s Head was another relatively underwhelming performance.Radley should and will aim highly, but I’m not predicting anything particularly outstanding.

Eton College 

Eton pose a serious and direct challenge to the Tideway Schools at SHORR this year. While we haven’t seen much of their first eight – they have been toiling away in matched eights for the majority of this season – recently ‘The VIII’ was fielded at Reading University Eight’s Head, and needless to say, it was fast. The Etonians managed to put a good 25 seconds into the Radley 1st VIII, finishing a few seconds behind a fast Oxford Brookes SEN8+ entry. They have some big units in the boat – David Bewicke-Copely is certainly a name that springs to mind, who has impressed thus far with some very fast 5Ks, as well as Ben Aldous, who has also produced some big wattage on the erg. This current crew really began with the fantastic Eton J16s of 2013, who set the J16 CH8+ record at Henley, and this group of guys have been continuing to impress ever since; Eton were a class crew last year, that took the Henley win with some style and performed consistently well throughout the year. The reintroduction of the charismatic and talented coach Alex Henshilwood would surely have played a massive hand in last season’s eventual victory and, given the personnel at his disposal, it’s not surprising that he has had little trouble putting a fast eight together this year. The Eton J16s of 2014 also began to really see strength towards the end of the year, with a GB vs France qualification in the 8+ (combined with Borlase) as well as a qualification in the Temple Challenge Cup at Henley. While their results at GB trials perhaps left something to be desired in February, Eton were well represented in Nantes with Bewicke-Copley, Alex Lindsay and Theo Hayes all forming part of the ‘top boat’ that was fielded towards the end of the camp. The three musketeers, along with Henley winner Francois Gouws, have been invited to Spring Assessments in early April. I think Eton have a lot of potential this year – they row well, have good power in the boat and seem like a well gelled unit while the speed they have shown so far in albeit limited racing has been respectable. Watch out for Eton on race day – they might just be in with a chance of snatching the gold.

Abingdon School

Abingdon are another school that is often slower in the head season, picking up a great deal of speed come summer – last year’s eight was a good example of this, placing 5th at SHORR before winning NSR. They are always a crew of big, powerful guys, and this year it doesn’t seem to be any different. Even in early February – and without much of a taper – Abingdon managed to have four guys sub 6:30 at the British Indoor Rowing Championships, and at the forefront is Tom Digby, who is really making a name for himself in global junior rowing, having won a silver at Junior Worlds as a J16, and now having come so close to the 5K junior record (Tom pulled a 15:58). His 1:41 half hour at rate 20 completed in Nantes would certainly have been a sight to behold. Tom has also demonstrated a great capacity for small boats – not an area that Abingdon is particularly known for. Digby and Adam Teece won GB trials in December, and then again on the Sunday in February; clearly this shows a level of skill that really negates any suggestion that Digby is an ‘erg monkey’. A pair takes a combination of power and technical prowess to row well – it can never be a case of one strong guy just smacking it down the course, particularly on a 5K stretch in Boston. Calum Farwell and Max Townley are also perhaps names to watch out for this season. Both are big guys, with a very respectable capacity in small boats, judging by their 14th place finish on the Sunday at GB Trials. Expect these boys to really make a showing seat racing at Spring Assessments, where horsepower really comes into its own. All this aside, I believe the Abingdon eight have some way to go before they can really tackle the top performers at a head race like SHORR. Abingdon did see success at the Wycliffe Head, winning the event outright and showing some good speed for that time of the season; however, when faced with real School’s Head competition at Hammersmith Head, they were a little off the pace, nearly 20 seconds off Westminster’s time. I don’t believe that Abingdon can ever be disregarded completely – NSR last year surely proved that – but I can’t see them really challenging for the top spot given their Hammersmith performance, and the fact that the Tideway schools have the home advantage. Abingdon will be fast, but not quite fast enough to win.

The King’s School, Chester

KCH don’t quite have the level of depth necessary to really challenge in their 1st VIII. Despite some very encouraging results in late 2014 at Wallingford Head, I don’t really feel like the 1st VIII have found quite the speed that they need to tackle the fastest schools competing at SHORR this year. Why do I think this? Mostly my view that the standard of athlete in the VIII is rather variable. While Harry Higginbottom and Coupe representative Alex Slater have been performing very well at trials – 8th and 10th in February – the rest of the boat seems a little off the pace, noticeably at February trials. They have had a degree of success in the eight, including a cameo at the North of England Head, where they just lost out to Shrewsbury by 0.6 seconds. The latter have been looking like they are in fine form at the moment, so KCH should be encouraged by the proximity of the margin. However, the bottom end of the squad really have to up their game in order to bring up the boat as a whole. It is the job of the stand-out athletes of the boat, Higginbottom and Slater, to motivate the guys around them into a strong eight – but right now, as is often the case with Chester, I just don’t feel that they’ll be able to throw themselves into the mix with the likes of Paul’s, Westminster and Eton.

Hampton School

If recent results are anything to go on, Hampton are currently of similar speed to Radley, and it is between these two boats that I think a potentially fierce rivalry could develop. Last year, Neil Double did all he could with a slightly weak Hampton squad, that ultimately did very well at NSR to win a bronze and over-achieved again at Henley, reaching the Saturday for the third year in a row. This year, Hampton benefit from some of last year’s strong J16s who were so dominant in the coxless four that went on to compete at GB France – indeed, had Hampton not been drawn such an unfavorable lane in the J16Ch8+ final, I’m pretty sure a medal at NSR would have been well within their grasp. Hampton row with some style, but are often hampered, if you’ll excuse the dreadful pun, by a lack of raw horsepower in the boat. Testament to this is that their top athlete at the moment, Chris Zahn, is still some way off going sub-17 for his 5K. What they lack in power, they often make up for in boat-moving ability, highlighted by that wonderful generation of boat-movers in 2012/2013. Having represented England at Home Countries last year, Zahn will really be looking for a place on the plane to Rio this Summer, and I think this is entirely within his grasp. However, one man cannot row an eight by himself, and despite some encouraging results in matched eights (including some very good performances at Hampton Head), I don’t feel that Hampton have the power to compete for the top spot at SHORR. They’ve entered the 1st VIII relatively late, and should really be aiming to assert some dominance over crews such as Radley – they can really start to rack up some experience and some finesse as they enter the regatta season. For now, don’t expect too much from the Hampton eight.

Shrewsbury School

I hesitate to really know quite how to predict Shrewsbury’s results at SHORR. They have really only recently sprung onto the radar with a solid performance at Hammersmith Head, beating the likes of Abingdon and coming dangerously close to St Paul’s, and a win at the North of England Head (although hotly pursued by King’s Chester, as aforementioned). I just can’t quite reconcile the image of the traditionally rather middling Shrewsbury with a high finish at School’s Head – call me prejudiced. However, it seems that Shrewsbury have found some speed that was not present in their 1st VIII last year. Perhaps with the addition of the strong bronze medal-winning J16s of last year, who also managed to field a fairly quick coxed four, they are starting to see an upturn – often an influx of a strong set of J17s can also serve to really bring up the J18s in competition for seats, in essence serving to strengthen the entire club. Under the technical guidance of Athol Hundermark, the man responsible for Abingdon’s Princess Elizabeth Cup victories in 2011 and 2012, I’m sure that these boys can put together a good race. They do have some pretty big units in the boat and have been boosted by the addition of Freddie Bonthrone, formerly of Kingston Rowing Club. I am rather excited to see quite what these guys are capable of at SHORR this year, given the speed they showed at Hammersmith. Who knows – perhaps they could cause a major upset on Monday.

King’s College School Wimbledon

It is encouraging to see KCS again entering CH8+, really cementing their status as a Champ Eight school; it is bold and really sends a message to current 1st 8+ schools that have not yet made the step over to the faster category. KCS have performed decently this season, and should be looking for a strong race at SHORR to secure a top ten finish. They won the J18 category at the Head of the Nene, but lost to the St Paul’s SEN8+ by around 45 seconds; at Hammersmith Head they performed perhaps somewhat disappointingly, losing out to the Bedford 1st VIII in J18 8+. These guys row nicely and move well together, and have shown some good form in friendlies on the Tideway – but this is again a case of a lack of power in the boat. Last year, guys like Ben Norbury and James Clarke, who now plies his trade at Harvard University, were really able to lay down some wattage in the middle of the boat. This year, the balance has swung in the other direction, and power is sacrificed for a more finesse-based crew. Added to this, the size of the KCS squad means that the 1st VIII really lacks the depth that is necessary for a high-placing Champ Eight. Again, it is impressive that they continue to step up to the CH8+ plate, but they have some way to go before they start really challenging in the event; however, a strong crew last year (5th at NSR and Thursday at Henley) should really inspire these guys to strive for the best they can achieve.

Westminster School

The junior crew of the moment. The whole junior rowing circuit is excited to see what these guys can achieve on Monday, and needless to say I am as well. The boat really speaks for itself, comprised of a host of last year’s massively talented J16 Eight that won both School’s Head and NSR. Alex Balgarnie, who attended the Nantes camp and came 2nd on both days of GB February Trials with Oscar Bird, and Sam Meijer, whose name should be of household stature to all junior rowers by now, make up the remainder of the crew. Yes, this is a strong boat. Perhaps the most dangerous thing about this strength is that it is both a strength born of physiology and of technical adeptness. The average Westminster 5K must surely be one of if not the top average 5K for a British schoolboy crew, and it is athletes like Meijer who really drive the boat on and call upon their massive strength – particularly in shorter distance pieces, which suggests that Westminster will be fast in the regatta season as well. Indeed, their dynamism off the back end is really more tailored to a 2K regatta than a 7K head race. The fact that they can still produce speed in March is really impressive. What is particularly noticeable about the boat is how well they row together – there is a synchronicity that really distinguishes them from other school 1st VIIIs, and that will really help them maintain speed on a long course like School’s Head. One need only look at recent results to see how the potential speed of the boat has translated into positions at Hampton Head, where they won the event and were comfortably the fastest crew in a field of some strong opposition, and Hammersmith Head where they were the fastest junior crew, a full 5 seconds in front of St Paul’s. At GB Trials, they had 4 pairs in the top 15 on both days (including the Westminster/Thames RC composite), and they are really looking like a club who will take to the water knowing full well that they are the fastest junior crew in the country. However, their starting position will be detrimental especially considering their main opposition will be starting further up the field. If they can overcome the intricacy of overtaking then they should really be on for the gold medal on Monday.

Shiplake College

Shiplake have had a good season thus far, and they should be putting in a strong showing at SHORR on Monday. After a surprisingly high finish at the Head of the Charles and the Head of the Schuylkill, they have since taken the bit between their teeth and attempted to challenge the more established rowing schools, and it is very encouraging that they have entered Ch8+ as opposed to 1st 8+, showing that they have a confidence and boldness that cannot be said for some of the faster 1st 8+ schools. At the Wycliffe Head, they were some way off Abingdon, but still put in a strong performance to finish 2nd in the J18 category. At Hammersmith Head, they should take confidence in their solid win over St Edward’s, and the fact that they were only around 7 seconds behind Abingdon. These performances follow from a strong year last year, where Shiplake placed 2nd in the Child Beale cup behind Pangbourne, as well as 2nd in the CH4+ behind Monmouth. While they have since lost the full four that made up such a strong 4+ at NSR, this year’s boat should take confidence from the strength of last year’s crew. Under the leadership of Dave Currie, considered to be one of the finest coaches around with a keen technical eye and a strong motivational ability, perhaps the only reason Shiplake are limited is due to the raw strength of the crew. This, of course, can always be worked on with ergs and weight training, so I think Shiplake should see this as an opportunity to come as close as they can to the top end of the category, and see if they can take down any established Champ Eight schools in the process.

Molesey Boat Club

It seems to me that Molesey are benefiting from some strong individual athletes. Will Johnston and Oli Ayres come immediately to mind, after placing a strong 15th at the February GB Trials, and these guys have since received invitations to Spring Assessments. It is unusual though for a club such as Molesey to really challenge the ‘rowing schools’ in a race such as this, mostly due to the fact that they can’t hope to really have as much time on the water as the guys who row at school, particularly if their boathouse is on-site, as it is at St Paul’s. Indeed, judging by their rather poor performance at Hampton Head (13th in J18 1st VIII), I can’t see them making an impression on this race, and they will almost certainly be towards the bottom end. Kudos, as ever, to the fact that they entered CH8+, but I really doubt whether they, as a club, are ready to take on the challenge.

Basler Ruder Club 

Despite the assertion from the Head of Rowing at Basler Ruderclub that 2014 saw a host of junior successes, it appears that, in actuality, the junior men haven’t been having the most successful season – they finished fairly far down at the Basel Head in late 2014, around 2 minutes behind the winners from Austria. That said, this does appear to be a pretty competitive event, given that Netherlands managed to field their Junior National Eight (and come 2nd). The club has seen some pretty strong results in small boats, including a first place finish in the double sculls at the Schwarzsee regatta. Last season, the club also had some strong showings at international regattas, but they seemed to mostly be confined to sculling boats – it remains to be seen how these boys from Germany will fare against their British counterparts. My instinct tells me that it will be very difficult for a foreign club to break into this event, given the strength of the majority of the boats entered – the Germans will simply not have enough experience of the Tideway to maximize their speed. However, I hesitate to discount them on fear of a stellar row from Basler Ruderclub, but I just can’t see a foreign entry getting anywhere near the likes of Westminster or St Paul’s.

Marlow Rowing Club

A club commonly associated with sculling at junior level, perhaps because of the stellar results it achieved in the days of Sholto Carnegie and Seb Devereux. Marlow took the Fawley Cup in dramatic circumstances in 2013, snatching it from Borlase in the final 100m and setting a new record in the process. Looking at recent results on Marlow’s website, it appears that the eight that will race at the SHORR will not have competed officially before – and clearly this relative inexperience will only work against a club that would already struggle against the well-drilled and powerful top school crews. I can’t see Marlow anywhere but towards the bottom end of this group of boats.

Sudbury Rowing Club

Sudbury’s juniors really don’t seem to have taken to the water in an official race as an eight yet. Historically, Sudbury don’t really field an eight for national competitions, so it is exciting for the club to be doing so on such a massive stage. In terms of a prediction, it seems really unlikely that these guys will get anywhere near the top school crews. At the Four’s Head, a Sudbury junior coxed four came 13th, a full 2 minutes behind the winners from St Paul’s – this just highlights the difference in the standard of rowing. It is already a pretty big ask to form a junior eight in a comparatively small club (it doesn’t have anywhere near the depth of, say, Molesey or any one of the Tideway clubs), and to then have that eight compete against some of the best schoolboy eights in the country is really an insurmountable challenge for a club such as Sudbury. They should really see it as a test against the foreign opponents and the Marlow entry, and continue to build towards a bigger future for juniors at Sudbury.

Canottieri Monate

Judging from their website, the trip to London to race at SHORR seems to be a pretty big deal for I Canottieri Monate, who round off the trip with a race at the Scullery. These guys look well drilled and have racked up some good results in Italy, including gold medals in doubles and singles at recent regattas held in Turin and in fours at the Italian Championships in Pisa. Of course, it is impossible to tell how this speed will compare to the speed of the British eights, but that clearly is not a reason to discredit a boat. Historically, foreign entries simply don’t have the experience of the course to be able to really perform against the top British crews, and for this reason I can’t see the Canottieri making a massive impression on this race. However, I wish them all the best, given what a big deal the trip is for the club, and I hope that they put in a performance that they can take confidence from returning to Italy to race their contemporaries there.

Aberdeen Schools Rowing Association

It is not often that one sees an ASRA eight on the national stage, mostly because, while they have produced some really stellar results in small boats, they don’t quite have the depth and physical strength to fill out a competitive eight. However, I think they should go in with confidence- they are a very technical club, with athletes at the top end who can really drive the boat on. At NSR last year, ASRA placed 2nd in 1st 4+, and were 1st by an almost embarrassingly large amount in J164+ – the boat that contained the very talented and mentally tough oarsman, Gregor Duncan. Gregor has seen some very positive results this season, being the fastest sweep oarsman who competed in a single at the Early ID Trials in December (a result that earned him a spot on the Nantes camp) and performed admirably at the GB Pairs Trials in February – a 5th place finish with his ASRA partner, Oliver Kinghorn, on the Saturday, and then a 6th place finish in a completely scratch pair with Chris Zahn on the Sunday. The guy can clearly row, and he will be driving on the ASRA eight on Monday. If this boat contains any number of the guys who fared so well at NSR last year, then I think they can put in a good result here. Yes, they are starting last, and yes, they aren’t overly familiar with the course, but I see no reason why they can’t put in a fast performance on Monday, and try and push crews such as KCS and Shiplake. Again, these guys aren’t physically the strongest, but skill with a blade can take you a fair way at SHORR – not right to the top, but certainly to a solid position in the thick of the CH8+ category.

FINISH ORDER

1) Westminster – their class at this stage in the season should see them through first.

2) St Paul’s – they have some really strong guys and row well, but I think Westminster will have the edge.

3) Eton – this feels like an Eton crew more tailored for Head Races. They combine power and technique well, but will suffer from the lack of home-water advantage.

4) Shrewsbury – they have surprised me with recent results, and I think that, with a solid row, this is a very attainable position.

5) Abingdon – they will have learnt from Hammersmith Head, and the sheer power of some of their athletes should see them to a high finish.

5) King’s School, Chester – a close second behind Shrewsbury at the NofE Head should give them confidence, and it is a testament to their speed.

6) Radley – they beat Hampton at Reading Uni Head, and can rely on some big power in the latter stages of the race from the middle of the boat.

7) Hampton – a crew with fine form but a lack of power, they were strong in matched eights but haven’t been able to quite get their 1st VIII up to speed.

8) St Edward’s – not the force they were last year, but there is potential there. School’s Head should be seen as a stepping stone in their path towards the regatta season.

9) Shiplake – could beat Teddies with a good row, but they are variable and don’t have the horsepower that some of the other clubs do.

10) KCS – row well but a dearth of power in the boat. If they can maximize their efficiency in the water, then they can attempt to negate the lack of power.

11) ASRA – have some good athletes, but likely not the depth needed to compete with the top schools.

12) Canottieri Monate – guessing here, but there is a chance that they could pull out a good performance on the day, not least due to the sheer adrenaline of the event.

13) Molesey – some good athletes, but their boat speed has been pretty poor in recent races.

14) Basler Ruderclub – again a guess; it is difficult for a foreign entry to make a serious impression on a race like this unless they are of a very high standard.

15) Marlow Rowing Club – a lack of recent results and a lack of historical results really suggests that Marlow won’t be able to compete with the other clubs in this event.

16) Sudbury Rowing Club – a small club, and a lack of standout athletes means it will be very difficult for Sudbury to make any impression on the race.

 

This concludes my preview of School’s Head CH8+.

Good luck to all crews racing!

Five Man

 

Five Man