National School’s Regatta 2015 – Championship Coxless Fours Preview

This event is largely seen as either an opportunity for the Champ and First Eights of the Saturday to break apart into smaller boats and have a crack at a Sunday medal, or for established fours, often from smaller clubs, who have been racing together all year to have a chance to test themselves against the best in the country. This year, the entry list looks to be particularly exciting, with some big names populating the draw and a keen sense of  competition for the coveted Royal Engineers Cup. What invariably begins as a chance for some ‘fun’ after the intensity of the Saturday races always quickly escalates into a furious fight for the top spot, and this year I think we’ll see another timely and exciting battle in the Coxless Fours.

As the entry list is so large for this category, I’ll preview what I feel are the top 6 crews – those most likely to make the final – and then I’ll also suggest some other crews that you might want to look out for.

At the end, I’ll submit a proposed finish order for the final.

Westminster School ‘A’

Westminster remain the junior eight of the moment, and I expect them to certainly medal in the Championship Eight category. This is made more impressive by the fact that they have spent a lot of time in small boats – pairs, and indeed fours, that really would suggest that Westminster should dominate this event – not only are they fantastic oarsmen, but they’ve also got experience in the boats that they’re racing. Westminster ‘A’ is comprised of the Plaut twins, strong rowers who really compliment each other’s styles, Oswald Stocker, who recently raced for GB at Munich International Junior Regatta, and Oscar Arzt-Jones. Stocker has been competing with Nick Plaut at GB Trials, where in April they finished in a very impressive 3rd place, and James Plaut and Arzt-Jones were just behind them in fourth. These guys have been rowing with each other from the early days, and it’s been exciting to track their careers – the future is really looking bright for that J14 Westminster crew of 2012 that crashed out of NSR due to equipment failure. They’ve found their stride, and I expect this to continue here. Results at Wallingford and Ghent should be evidence enough that the guys have speed, and that this will most certainly take them to a high finish in this event. I’m putting this crew over the other Westminster crew because, despite their lack of the raw power of Sam Meijer or the GB experience of Alex Balgarnie, this four seems to be the more technical of the two – and judging from GB trials results, it appears also to be the four comprised of the more successful small-boat movers.

Westminster School ‘B’

Following on from the preview above, I’m expecting Westminster ‘B’ to take another podium finish in this event. The monopoly that Westminster is developing over the junior rowing sweep scene is nothing short of astounding, particularly given Westminster’s general background in sculling. To have boats so close to the top at J15, J16 and senior level is really quite an achievement, particularly given that the squads aren’t huge – Westminster cannot even field a 2nd eight. This four looks to be the heavier and physically stronger of the two fours, containing the might of Sam Meijer – affectionately referred to as ‘quadzilla’ – who will be a driving force in the race, Alex Balgarnie, who has seen a meteoric rise to the upper echelons of junior sweep rowing, Ed Bentley, whose power is substantial, and Jonathan Edwards, a familiar face from the Westminster J15 and J16 eight that so dominated their respective events in years past. These guys aren’t quite as fluid as the other four, relying slightly more on horsepower, and this isn’t necessarily the best way to get a coxless four moving quickly. But they’ll undoubtedly be fast after a training camp spent almost exclusively in small boats, and a great deal of racing experience put in at Ghent, and later Wallingford – I’m struggling to see any eventuality where Westminster don’t get the 1-2 in this event.

Pangbourne 

Anyone who was at NSR last year will probably remember the way that Pangbourne dominated the field in the coxless fours, beating King’s Chester in the final by a full 7 seconds. Pangbourne are, admittedly, not the force they were last year – there was a suggestion in 2014 that Pangbourne had moved beyond the confines of Child Beale, and should be racing up a category with the Champ Eight crews – but this does not change the fact that I think this four will be very strong. Leading the crew will be the highly accomplished Luke Towers, who clearly is an exceptionally talented oarsman, and alongside Charlie Elwes (if he has recovered) will form the second bowsider in the top GB four at Junior Worlds this Summer. He’s got a lot of power and can adapt himself well across different boat classes – perhaps one of the reasons why he is so successful in pairs – and I think this crew’s success will ride significantly with Luke. He is joined by one other member of the crew from last year, and this current four has been racking up some very impressive results – although not, surprisingly, in sweep rowing. As a quad, this four has been flying, running Sir William Borlase close at the Scullery and beating Leander, and again getting close to Borlase at Wallingford. These guys are sweep rowers, so I have no doubt they’ll be able to nicely adapt to the coxless four – and if they can find the same speed that they do in a quad, they’re sure to give Westminster a run for their money.

Eton College

Eton are destined to see a high finish in this event. This boat is wholly comprised of Henley winners – all these guys won the Princess Elizabeth Challenge Cup last year. They are all fantastic rowers, and those who are still able to trial are proving this – Alex Lindsay put in an excellent showing at Spring Assessments to beat basically everyone he seat raced, therefore being invited to Munich as the third-ranked GB bowsider (although unfortunately he had to drop out through illness), and Francois Gouws saw an impressive rise by smashing the ‘D’ pairs matrix, working his way through the ranks and just missing out on a spot on the team. At the April pairs trials, Lindsay and Gouws teamed up for the first time as the Eton ‘A’ pair, and were just pipped into the B final in their semi – a final that they won comfortably. These guys are talented, that much is clear, and despite their ergo scores not perhaps betraying this power, it would be foolish to write them off because of this. They are all furious racers, and won’t let the gold go easily – personally I am really excited to see how they fare against the likes of Westminster. This final is really shaping up to be a blockbuster!

The King’s School, Chester

This may be regarded as a slightly odd choice, but hear me out. Chester are perhaps not famed for their speed in the eight, but I would argue this is due to a lack of strength in the bottom end of their squad – Chester year after year field eights that aren’t quite fast enough to make an impression in Champ Eights, but then field top fours that pull out really encouraging results – one need only look to last year’s coxless fours, where they took silver behind Pangbourne. Granted, it was a different crew, and an arguably much stronger crew – only one athlete remains from last year’s boat – but I still think these boys are in with a chance, provided they have a good row. Alex Slater will be the standout here, the captain of boats at King’s Chester and a man who has really risen through the ranks in Junior GB, going from Coupe last year to vying for a spot with Tom Digby in the top four this year (Slater and Naylor are seemingly still competing for the place). His strength is undoubtedly his stature – he’s one of the tallest junior rowers in the circuit right now – and he really effectively utilizes this to get impressive length. Elsewhere in the four sits the ineffable Harry Higginbottom, whose antics at GB trials have made him something of a household name among trialists. He hasn’t seen a great deal of success in the trials process, but he’s built for well-set, bigger boats, and I think a coxless four will be a good test for him. He’s certainly very powerful, and will next year be a central figure in the Chester eight. As of now, I think these guys should certainly aim for the final – and when they get there, they should just see where they can go from there. I have faith that they’ll pull out a good performance.

Hampton School

This last spot was extremely hard to pick. There are essentially a number of fours who I feel will be around the same speed in this event – but I think Hampton will just have enough to pip the others, who I will mention below, to the post for a place in the final. While the Hampton eight is undoubtedly experiencing a bit of a rough patch at the moment, not quite able to find the speed that Hampton eights have had in the past, the top athletes in the boat are still very accomplished rowers in their own right. Chris Zahn brings a level of smoothness and maturity to the boat – he’s a fine oarsman, and I expect him to make a strong showing at Final Trials later this year – Jens Clausen has a lot of length, and has been improving greatly throughout the year, and for me, Tom Long and Dom Jackson were the unsung heroes of Spring Assessments, consistently punching well above their weight and winning seat races – although ultimately I feel that they were overlooked due to the fact that they are, admittedly, somewhat smaller than a lot of the other trialists. I think this is testament to the Hampton technique, which really allows smaller athletes to find a lot of speed, with a good deal of emphasis placed on the back end. It is this that I feel will allow Hampton to find a place in the final in the coxed fours. I really rate these guys, and I want to see them do well – with the careful guidance of Neil Double, I think that they may surpass expectations here.

There are a host of other boats that you really should be looking out for in this event, all of whom have a chance of making a spot in the final. Abingdon School are an obvious choice, particularly given that their boat is full of experienced and strong athletes, and good small-boat movers to boot – Calum Farwell has particularly been making a strong impression at trials. Latymer Upper School are another boat to watch – these guys row really well together, and in small boats, Latymer’s technical focus is emphasized. One need only look to the exploits of Tom Yates and his Munich selection to see how Latymer can produce guys who really move fours. Radley College are fielding another experienced boat, and will likely give many of the crews mentioned above a run for their money, and Molesey Boat Club have been really impressing me at trials this year – particularly Will Johnston and Oli Ayres – and I think they’ll have a shot on Sunday. In all honestly, there are no weak crews entered here – so anyone could surprise, and making the final is anyone’s game.

My finish prediction:

1) Westminster School ‘A’

2) Eton College

3) Westminster School ‘B’

4) Pangbourne College

5) King’s Chester

6) Hampton School

Good luck to all crews racing!

Five Man

Five Man