National Schools’ Regatta 2016 – Championship Eights

So it comes to this. The crux of junior rowing, the pinnacle of months of miles, early mornings and unrelenting programs. It’s a dream shared by many to lift the Queen Mother Cup, but a goal achieved by few and repeated by even fewer. The National Schools’ Regatta is the first chance to see the best schoolboy eights in the country line up alongside each other, as sub-plots unfold and drama heightens. Here, we will preview all the crews entered and attempt to cast a little light on proceedings as we head towards this Saturday’s showdown.

Westminster School

Arguably the greatest success story of the past twelve months within junior rowing, Westminster’s eight has re-worked the traditional championship rivalries which course through this event. Their display of dominance at last year’s event spoke of a crew who combined self-belief with rigorous power and sound technique. Billy Mason, the architect of this crew, has handed his keys for the kingdom to Josh Butler, who began their defence of the QM cup in the best possible way by emerging as victors at the Schools’ Head of the River. Despite pre-race talk of Eton and St Paul’s closing the gap, Butler’s unit dispelled fears with an impressive display of rowing on their home course. Regatta season is a vastly different beast though. The crew is stacked full of talent, including the Plaut twins who were JRN’s crew of the month back in October. It’ll be another fascinating match-up and I fancy Westminster as slight favourites ahead of Saturday.

St Paul’s

So often bridesmaids to Westminster, Bobby Thatcher’s crew finally overthrew the pink palace on the Henley stretch last year. Their famous victory shattered Billy Mason’s hopes of a historic triple and demonstrated that St Paul’s had learnt their lesson from the year before. After a slightly disappointing showing at the Schools’ Head, St Paul’s will be back to try and wrest the CH8+ title from Westminster’s grasp. Although they lost stroke-man Marco Hughes and strongman Arthur Doyle to pastures new this season, they’ve replaced them with competitive athletes from the burgeoning J16 squad. They row exceptionally well and will be hoping to build upon their experience from last year. I think there’ll be closer to Westminster than they were this time last year, but it’ll be interesting to see if they can completely overturn the deficit. But with a sizeable loss to Eton at Wallingford a few weekends ago playing on their minds, I think it’ll be difficult for St Paul’s to really get back into a race for the top spot. A medal is certainly on the cards – but even that will be hard-fought in such a tight field.

Eton College

After a season which Britain’s most famous school will undoubtedly count as disappointing, Eton will be back with a vengeance this year. I believe they’ve got a better crew this year, with a well poised combination of power and technique. Athletes like David Bewicke-Copley will be crucial to taking this boat forward, as he is a junior international with a wealth of experience at the top level. Having dabbled with sculling this year, along with setting a couple of impressive ergo scores, the big Etonian will be looking to push his crew on. Their bronze medal last year was a decent result in a stacked field, but the going is no easier this time around. That said, I believe Eton are quicker than last year; they were convincing winners in Junior A Eights at Wallingford Regatta, second placed finishers in Challenge Eights at the same event and were only a few seconds off the pace at Schools’ Head. A dark horse for the gold medal this weekend.

Shiplake College

Undoubtedly the surprise package of this season, Shiplake burst through the glass ceiling to take joint second place at the Schools’ Head of the River. Dave Currie, former coach of Abingdon School, has had a profound impact on the speed of the crew, who have stepped up to race championship level this year after winning 1st Eights last year. It’d be a remarkable achievement from the school to win a medal at championship level and I wouldn’t put it past them – they’re fiercely competitive and Currie has got them whipped into good physical shape. It’ll be good to see Shiplake continuing to be the cat amongst the pigeons, but I fear they may fall off the pace a little this weekend.

Winchester College

A crew who have finally stepped up to play with the big boys. Their dominant display at the Schools’ Head, where they won 1st Eights by 11 seconds, was a sign that this boat was ready to dine at junior rowing’s highest table. Most of this crew were involved in winning a silver medal in J16CH8+ at the National Schools’ Regatta last year and so have another year of development. They raced well at the beginning of the year, picking up good results against the likes of St Paul’s, but their time at the Schools’ Head would have placed them ninth in Championship Eights. They won Elite Eights at Bedford Regatta, beating a crew who defeated Hampton School in the previous round. They’ll need to improve on this to make the A-final this weekend, especially with the added inclusion of Child Beale crews pushing for a final spot.

Abingdon School

This school have struggled over the past couple of years, make no mistake. Since the departure of Dave Currie to Shiplake, they’ve struggled to recreate the magical form which saw them win three consecutive Princess Elizabeth titles, along with a smattering of National School golds. With Tom Digby, who continues to astound punters with his monstrous ergo scores, entering his final year at school, this is Abingdon’s last chance to make proper use of his prodigious talents in the middle of the crew. Abingdon’s result at the Schools’ Head was actually very promising, finishing fifth ahead of a pack of rivals which included St Edwards and Hampton. They also raced well to finish fifth in a very competitive Challenge Eights field at Wallingford Regatta, although they were behind Eton and Shiplake. I think these boys will be making their expected appearance in the final, but they’ll do well to medal.

St Edwards

Having lost the majority of their strongest athletes from the famous dual runs to the final of the Princess Elizabeth Challenge Cup in 2013 and 2014, this crew were caught napping at the National Schools’ Regatta last year. They paddled the time-trial and were eliminated at that stage, before going on to win the B-Final in a show of strength and dented pride. They’ll be careful not to make the same mistake this year, and if they race to potential they’ll be a force. Teddies always improve in the summer season, testament to their performances at Henley. Taking into account various factors, their race at the Schools’ Head was not a bad result and they’ll be looking to overhaul Abingdon in the race for the podium. With returning athletes like Rupert Singfield, David Wilcox and Henry Reilly, this crew are another unknown quantity ahead of this weekend.

Hampton School

Hampton are another school who regularly turn out strong crews, but they generally get faster as the season progresses. They’ve struggled to really compete for medals over the past few years but gave Westminster a good run on the Thursday of Henley. Their failure to make the final of CH8+ last year will have shaken them to ensure the feat is not repeated. They were winners of IM2 Eights at Bedford Regatta whilst their seventh place finish at Schools’ Head was probably a little disappointing, particularly considering local rivals Abingdon and St Edward’s beat them. I fancy them to make this Saturday’s final though.

Radley College

A stalwart of the junior rowing scene and one of the last remaining bastions of old-school rowing hierachy. They had a very impressive year last season, culminating in a semi-final appearance at Henley Royal Regatta. Having lost Charlie Elwes to Yale University, I feel that the Oxfordshire-based school may not be the force they have been in previous years; they finished eighth at the Schools’ Head and were seventeen seconds behind Westminster. I fear they may miss out on the A-final of the event.

Royal Shrewsbury School

I expected more from these guys at the Schools’ Head. A tenth placed finish was not really indicative of a crew pushing the fastest schools, and they’ll need to have improved dramatically since then to stand a chance of making the A final this Saturday. Athol Hundermark has struggled to recreate the quality of crew he engineered at Abingdon although they did make the final of CH8+ last year. Their exit on the first day of Henley last year was disappointing though. It’ll be interesting to see how these guys have improved since March.

King’s School Chester

Perhaps the slowest of the Championship crews, they’ll have to work hard to ensure they reach the final. Although the field has been widened to eight crews, King’s School Chester finished tenth at the Schools’ Head and would also have slipped behind Winchester in 1st Eights. A KCH crew failed to get out of its heat at Wallingford Regatta and, if that’s their top crew, it’s a worrying sign for these boys. It’d be good to see a turn of speed, but I think they’ll have a job making the top eight.

 

So that’s our preview for Championship Eights. It’s a truly tough one to call – any one of three crews could realistically walk away from Saturday with the title. Westminster will be hunting a triple they feel was stolen from them last year, St Paul’s will be looking to make amends for 2015’s silver medal and Eton are showing signs of impressive speed.

 

My prediction:

  1. Westminster
  2. Eton
  3. St Paul’s
JuniorRowingBlogger