National Schools’ Regatta 2015- Championship Eights Preview

Of all the great schoolboy races, amidst the whispers and the writing, this stands above the rest. The piece de resistance of junior rowing. The contest between the fittest, strongest teenage athletes in the country has seen some fantastic winners down the years, from the astonishing Eton College Eights of 2009 and ’10 to the unfavoured Abingdon crew of 2014. Not only is the race regarded as the pinnacle of the season but it also gives a form indicator for the Henley Royal Regatta and the allure of the Princess Elizabeth Challenge Cup. The question remains as to what this year will provide, in one of the tightest fields of recent times. The preview…

Westminster School

Key Athlete- Sam Meijer

Coach- Bill Mason

And so the magic Bill Mason turned his touch to the unexplored realms of sweep oar, and so it was that he brought great success to all. Despite Westminster’s impressive form through the head season, where they triumphed on home river at the Schools’ Head, many are writing them off for the summer season. Why, you may ask. Lets examine the facts. They’re superb boat movers, as their performance in smaller boats has paid tribute to, and they’re also extremely fit athletes, who many say are better suited to the longer stretches of the Tideway. I spent a lot of time down in Putney over the Easter period and it must be said that the Westminster boys aren’t exactly giants. But nor were the Eton eight who swept all before them at Henley last year. Being a world class rower doesn’t always mean you’re physically indomitable. I think they simply have to go into this weekend as favourites on account of the form book- their choice to race fours at Wallingford means it’s nearly impossible to gauge the speed of their eight. They’ve got brilliant athletes throughout the boat, from the infamous Sam Meijer to GB Trials specialist Alex Balgarnie to the Plaut twins who were so central to the success of Westminster’s J16 eight last year. A storm is coming- it remains to be seen whether or not it’s pink.

 

Abingdon School

Key Athlete- Tom Digby

Coach- Ali Brown

Summer specialists, and the school with the most successful domestic record over the last four years. The previous seven Championship Eight titles, excluding 2008 when the event was cancelled, have been shared between Eton College and Abingdon School, which is a tribute to their superb programs of development and conditioning. Abingdon’s season has been rather indifferent so far; an eighth place finish at the Schools’ Head was a pretty poor result whilst they finished second in their heat at Wallingford Regatta behind Shrewsbury. Can all this be recovered in a dramatic turn of speed? Their first eight choose not to race at Bedford Regatta, which suggests they were training. Tom Digby, owner of the British Under-18 5k record, was selected to race in Munich so it’ll be interesting to see how quickly they’ve integrated him back in. Abingdon have the power- a number of impressive ergo scores from the early ID’s prove this. Their progress on Saturday will depend on their ability to translate this into boat-moving speed- they don’t have the pedigree of athlete that they’re used to this year, with the exception of Digby, so Ali Brown has his work cut out to replicate the achievements of recent Abingdon crews. Renowned for his intensive training programs, Ali will have tailored his crew to show their hand this Saturday.

 

St Paul’s School

Key Athlete- Arthur Doyle

Coach- Bobby Thatcher

This is the crew I’m looking forward to seeing the most on Saturday. Practising a style of rowing which I simply love, St Paul’s will be a front-runner on Saturday. They ran Westminster extremely close at the Schools’ Head and produced a stunning row in their heat of Junior Eights at Wallingford to win by eight seconds. They had five athletes racing at the Munich International Regatta, a pretty stunning achievement. Having dominated the 2014 head season, they struggled at the National Schools’ last year before crashing out in the first round of Henley [albeit against eventual finalists St Edwards]. This year, they seem to be motivated by the events of last season and they’ve showed no signs of stepping off the gas approaching National Schools’. I’d actually venture a guess that they’re quite a bit faster now than they were in March, giving everyone else something very real to think about. When I spoke with Bobby at the Fours Head, he said that you always come away with a focus from the last event that you raced at. Moving into this season, that was Henley 2014 for St Paul’s. Their superb technical ability has allowed them to tick over at a high rate than the likes of Abingdon and St Edward’s- it’ll be fascinating to see whether they can maintain this advantage.

 

King’s School Chester

Key Athlete- Alex Slater

Coach- David Blackman

Another school who have been hovering around the highest bracket for the past few years. King’s School Chester have some excellent athletes in the ranks, with two of their lads heavily involved in the GB Trialling process. They’ve had a fairly good season, finishing ninth at the Schools’ Head and recording strong results at local events. They’ve had some great quality coming through the ranks, with a finalist standard J16CH8+ last year, which means they’ve been able to build a strong eight from the remnants of their crew last year. It’s a coming of age process for Chester- they’ve been knocking on the door repeatedly but have yet to convert this effort into any serious results. They narrowly missed out on a spot in the CH8+ final last year and finished second in their heat at Wallingford Regatta behind a strong St Paul’s crew. Can they final this year? I think it’s a tall order- the bar has risen again and I’m unsure as to whether King’s School Chester have gone with it.

 

St Edward’s School

Key Athlete- Hugo Marsh

Coach- Jonny Singfield

It’s been a very peculiar season for Teddies. They were consigned to the rafters by punters last year but came back stronger to make the final of the Princess Elizabeth Challenge Cup for the second year in a row. However, they’ve lost the mercurial talents of Oli Knight, who is now plying his trade at Newcastle University to great effect. This seems to have damaged speed, with a sixth place finish at the Schools’ Head the only real representation of speed. The crew is actually stacked with serious talent, including junior internationals Hugo Marsh, Albert Mitchell and Sam Gillingham. They’ve got five returners from the crew last year and I expect big things of these guys. They haven’t performed to their potential so far this season, a factor which means they’ve been ruled out of the running for a spot in the CH8+ final by punters. Don’t speak too soon though- Teddies are renowned for their high intensity racing style and I expect them to be pushing for a medal on Saturday. Class crews don’t go totally off the boil, they just suffer lapses- I believe Teddies fit this category.

 

Hampton School

Key Athlete- Chris Zahn

Coach- Neil Double

Much has been made of the mysterious talents of Chris Zahn on social media; John Obi Mikel of Chelsea Football Club is perhaps the only other athlete who creates the same divide in world opinion. Whatever the extent of Zahn’s skill with a blade, Hampton have struggled to have an impact so far this season. They finished joint sixth at the Schools’ Head, ahead of Abingdon but behind the likes of Radley and Eton. My understanding is that they fielded matched eights at Wallingford, resulting in two pretty underwhelming results in Heats B and C. Form picked up slightly upon travelling to Bedford Regatta, where they took IM2 Eights and lost out narrowly in the semi finals of J18 Eights to Bedford School. They’re such a tricky crew to pin down though; I practically wrote them off last year and they then went on to not only make the final of CH8+ but win a bronze medal. They don’t look like they have that same level of athlete this year but I expect to see them fighting for a place in the final. They also have a strong second eight, which could make a difference in selection.

 

Eton College

Key Athlete- Alex Lindsay

Coach- Alex Henshilwood

Many have tipped Eton for the win this weekend so I think it’s about time we have a look why. They have a brilliant set of athletes and an unstoppable second eight- this sort of strength in depth nearly always produces top quality first eights. They’re under the stewardship of Alex Henshilwood, whose ability as a coach is revered throughout the rowing world. Indeed, there was talk about Henshilwood going for the GB juniors job although I understand that was merely speculation. They’ve got five returners from the eight last year, including stroke Alex Lindsay and GB trialist Francois Gouws. They aren’t the prettiest of crews in terms of their style but they pack a punch- David Bewicke Copley has a phenomenal ergo score. Can they win on Saturday and claim the biggest prize in schoolboy rowing for the first time since 2011? In a word, yes. They’ve got the power, technical ability, motivation, fitness and mentality to succeed at the highest level. I think they’ll certainly be in contention for a medal and will be eyeing the gold with excitement.

 

Radley College

Key Athlete- Charles Elwes

Coach- John Gearing

A crew who I feel always out-perform expectation. They finished fourth at the Schools’ Head and narrowly lost out to the Royal Shrewsbury School at Bedford Regatta. However, they’ve been missing Charles Elwes over the past few weeks, who is undoubtedly their top athlete. I’m told he’s been struck down with glandular fever so it remains to be seen as to whether he races this weekend- my guess would be not. Whatever the case, Radley still have the athletes to challenge at the highest level but will struggle to replace Elwes. They’ve made a habit of appearing in the final of CH8+ over the past couple of years and I think it’ll be their toughest challenge yet to repeat that feat. In James Murrell and Miles Rowse, they have other guys capable of carrying the boat forward whilst Sean Gearing is an experienced cox. I wasn’t expecting such a strong showing from them in March and I think they’ll be a tough obstacle for Eton, Westminster and St Paul’s.

 

Shrewsbury School

Key Athlete- George Patterson

Coach- Athol Hundermark

Is this Shrewsbury’s year? The unending abuse that RSSBC seemed to attract on social media has gone awfully quiet since their impressive showing at the Schools’ Head- fifth place is their best result since 2012. It’s been a long time coming but I think we could be witnessing what will amount to a very strong season for Shrewsbury. That distinctive style that Hundermark instils in his crews finally seems to have embedded itself, and the results have been impressive. They won their heat at Wallingford by a length in an extremely competitive field and the inclusion of athletes like Freddie Bonthrone, formerly of Kingston Rowing Club, has been critical to their progression. Like many of the major rowing schools, they aren’t short of financial support and carbon-wing Empachers, a favourite of Hundermark, have also contributed to the improvement. Their speed appears to be born at just the right moment- in a field as open as we have seen, Shrewsbury can make their mark. I expect them to make the final and I think they’ll be challenging for a medal.

 

Prediction for the final- Westminster School, St Paul’s School, Eton College, Shrewsbury School, St Edward’s School, Abingdon School

Winner- It’s incredibly hard to call but I’m going to go with my gut and say Eton.

JuniorRowingBlogger
I am the editor of a rapidly growing blog based around the junior rowing circuit within the UK. From launch in June 2013, the website has experienced vast growth in both its reader count and view count while the article range has expanded. I currently work with a team of 10 people, all of whom voluntarily write articles for the blog. In our first year, I looked to expand from the standard previews and reviews that had gained initial success to building relationships with clubs and conducting interviews. This move proved successful and we are currently exploring new routes to further improve our platform. The blog has led to involvement with Regatta Radio, Rowing & Regatta, Row 360 and British Rowing.