National Schools’ Regatta 2017 – Championship Eights

Battle is the most magnificent competition in which a human being can indulge. It brings out all that is best; it removes all that is base.

George S. Patton

And so we reach the final frontier. Months of straining against the handle, struggling against the blade, striving against the clock. Every drop of sweat caught for reference and laid bare over 2000m to reveal the fastest schoolboy crew in the country. There will be no hiding on the straights of Dorney and no quarter given between friend and foe alike. Athletes who race on these waters next weekend may well wear the colours of their nation together in years to come, but there is no greater breeding ground for winners. This is the ultimate prize in junior rowing.

Hampton 

Forever a stalwart on the junior sweep scene, Hampton have a habit of producing quality crews with unerring consistency. The top of the podium has been perennially out of reach in recent years, but their ability to feature regularly should be applauded. This crew is young and knows nought but how to win – most of them took gold at J16 level last year. The step-up to championship is formidable though and it is a bridge that usually takes more than 12 months to cross. It would be a surprise to see them challenge the front-runners, a prediction made all the more difficult by the lack of credible racing done by any of the crews since Christmas. At a much-maligned Schools’ Head, Hampton finished sixth but were nine seconds behind Shiplake over less than two kilometres. They’ll be hard pushed to better that position next Saturday.

Shiplake

Shiplake are probably the favourites for this event after a phenomenal two-year turnaround in their program under Dave Currie. They are a strong and experienced crew, made up of a number of older boys returning from last year’s eight. They have dominated every race they have attended this season and won the Schools’ Head of the River albeit in somewhat depleted circumstances. They decided to race Wallingford Regatta in coxed fours, beating rivals St Paul’s comfortably. Recent races against Leander’s Thames cup crew have highlighted their exceptional speed out of the blocks, a factor exacerbated by an equally rapid mid-race pace. It would be surprising if this crew didn’t win some silverware on Saturday.

Radley

Radley are a powerful crew with a lot of potential. Better known for their remarkable ability to transform nine athletes floundering in the abyss around the end of May into fully-fledged challengers at Henley, Radley have a lot of catching up to do if they are to pose a serious threat next weekend. They lost to St Paul’s by nine seconds at Wallingford Regatta, but have since changed their stroke man, and beat Shrewsbury and Hampton more recently at Nottingham City. A headwind, like the one predicted for Saturday, will likely suit the boys in white and red. With their wealth of championship level experience and nous, they should be up there competing for the medals.

Kings Chester School

Kings Chester have shown promise in recent weeks, and seem to be picking up speed. In addition, their cox, Wilf le Brocq, was recently selected to race at the Munich International regatta, alongside the top junior rowers in the country. Their new Coach, Matt Jump, previously of Grange School, will likely have brought them on since Wallingford, so Kings Chester should not be underestimated.

Shrewsbury School 

Shrewsbury have clearly stepped on since the School’s Head of the River. Under Athol Hundermark, they’ve struggled to really make an impression on the business end of the junior rowing scene. However, Hundermark knows how to run a tight ship and has slowly rebuilt the Shrubbers program in an attempt to challenge the likes of Westminster and St Paul’s. They led and even briefly threatened to topple a very decent Eton crew at Wallingford Regatta, which was certainly a step in the right direction. They have a good mixture of experience and power and will be up there fighting for the medals this Saturday.

Eton College

Eton are one of the stronger crews in this category, and indeed one of the foremost names on the scene. They have four 2016 Henley winners and 3 Junior Worlds medalists on-board and the crew placed second at the Schools’ Head of the River. They won their heat at Wallingford Regatta, beating Hampton and Shrewsbury, even though they were racing in one of the slower lanes. They will be keen to take the title from Westminster, to whom they so narrowly lost in 2016. They raced the University of London’s top crew this weekend and apparently came close to beating them on a few of the pieces. In the context of that achievement alone, they should be feared.

Westminster

Westminster placed fourth at the Schools’ Head of the River, narrowly missing out on a medal, behind Shiplake, Eton and St Paul’s. Holders of this event and one of the country’s dominant junior forces in recent years, Westminster will be keen to retain their title for a second successive season. They didn’t race in the eight at Wallingford Regatta, as seems to be their style, so it’s hard to determine how fast they will be come Saturday. However, their efficient style lends itself to fast movement and a lethal mid-race pace so I would be surprised if Westminster were far off the medals this weekend.

Winchester

Winchester are also an experienced crew. Made up mostly of J18s, they began training in their boat very early in the year, and have shown consistent speed throughout the season. They have a number of outstanding athletes, most notably Tobias Schroeder who has produced some of the best ergometer scores in the country and recently raced at the Munich Regatta in the top boat. They won J18 8+s at Wallingford Regatta, and will be looking to medal, if not win, this weekend.

Abingdon

Gone are the days when the Oxfordshire-based school held the junior rowing scene in an iron grip. Times are hard, particularly following the departure of star oarsman Tom Digby to Yale University. Following on from a distinctly underwhelming performance at the Schools’ Head of the River, they finished fifth in a heat of Challenge Eights (seven seconds behind Eton) before winning Open 1 Eights at Bedford Regatta – the highest ranked category on offer. Although that victory came against, largely, collegiate crews, it will have served its purpose in recapturing the winning mentality which made Abingdon such a force several years ago. That said, I’d be surprised if Abingdon made the A final on Saturday and, if Ali Brown acts in the pragmatic manner which served him well at Henley last year, he will look to transfer down into smaller boats for the year’s principal regatta.

St Edwards

Yet another name which chimes of past successes. There was a time when St Edwards were arguably the finest schoolboy crew in the UK – an accomplished combination of ferocious power and unyielding spirit. Nowadays, the picture is significantly different – darker and altogether more uncertain. Following a 14th place finish at the Schools’ Head, in a year when the last remnants of the crews which made successive Henley finals have finally flown the nest, this boat is something of an unknown. It would be a surprise unlike any other were they to place on Saturday. But in twelve months defined by shocks that have rocked the nation to its very core, this would be perhaps the most profound. There is no doubting the quality of the system that Teddies have in place; moreover, they often thrive on others writing them off. I, for one, hope Saturday provides the foundations for a resurgence.

St Paul’s School

Now established as one of the UK’s finest centres for junior rowing (not to mention its exceptional academic record), St Paul’s will arrive on Saturday in the same breath as Eton and Shiplake. Beyond that, they are a crew who have proved their pedigree at the highest level time and time again. Two Henley finals in successive years (including a historic victory over arch-rivals Westminster in 2015) has turned Bobby Thatcher’s program into the envy of schools the country over. They won Challenge Eights at Westminster, coming in six seconds clear of the next fastest crew. Naturally, these results need to be presented in the context of the event itself – racing was called off as conditions worsened through the day and prizes were awarded to crews based on their heat times. In any case, Paul’s are entering Saturday with results and athletes to back their claim – their top athletes regularly feature for Great Britain, including the indomitable Casper Woods. They lost out to Shiplake and Eton back in March but it’ll take some boat to beat Bobby’s boys next weekend.

Prediction:

Shiplake College

Eton College

St Paul’s School

Westminster School

Winchester College

Radley College

Shrewsbury School

Hampton School

Kings Chester School

Abingdon School

St Edward’s School

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