History repeats as Sydney and Melbourne share rowing honours
In an amazing déjà vu experience, the results of the 2016 Australian Boat Race mirror those of the last two editions of this time-honoured rowing grudge match.
The University of Sydney Men’s Eight, captained by Rio silver medallist, Cameron Girdlestone out-rowed the University of Melbourne Men’s Eight to retain the Edmund Barton Trophy, while this result was reversed in the Women’s Eights as Melbourne preserved their unbeaten status with an unyielding grip on the Bella Guerin Trophy.
History has repeated results but the rowing conditions today were decidedly different with challenging cross winds generating choppy water and wash. All crews had their nerve tested and the blade work of all rowers was impressive in the conditions. Perhaps it was all part of the strategy to make the visiting Melbournians feel more at home.
The women’s race saw the USYD crew, starting on the favoured northern side, steal a slender half-a-boat lead. Given the turbulent water this seemed a smart strategy to go out quick and hold the margin as long as possible. Melbourne responded though and was not going to concede Sydney any advantage. Neck and neck, the two boats came perilously close at times with oars not far from clashing. The Melbourne boat was pressuring Sydney for space and the guile of Melbourne and Rio Olympic Women’s Eights, Coxswain and Captain, Sarah Banting was on full display. Indeed the stern of the Melbourne boat was formidable with Banting sitting closest to fellow Rio Olympian, Jennifer Cleary, in the Stroke seat. Sydney never relented, however Melbourne pulled away gradually over the 4.3 kilometre course to win by approximately eight boat lengths. Despite the loss, those in the know commented that the USYD crew had improved from last year and the margin between the boats is diminishing.
While the women’s crews faced testing wind, swell and waves at times, the weather deteriorated markedly by the time the men’s crews squared off on the start line. Gushes of spray flew off the blades making the risk of sinking a possibility with the amount of water flying in the air. Melbourne, having won the coin toss, started from the preffered northern side, however it was Sydney who captured a slight two-seat lead on a very exposed part of the course. Both crews could have been forgiven for reverting to survival mode, yet they ploughed on as oarsmen do in the midst of a match race. Later, Master of Ceremonies and Sydney University Blue, John Boultbee AM, would quip the men’s contest resembled a, “surf boat race,” such were the conditions and at times the water looked like the surf at Bondi, whipped up by a fresh nor’easter. The crews did find a little reprieve as they steered closer to land. Sydney, slowly and surely, gained ascendancy to win by approximately four boat lengths.
In an incredible statistic Rio silver medallist and Sydney oarsman, Sasha Belonogoff has now won every Australian Boat Race he has contested, that is six wins from six starts. The Melbourne men’s crew were valiant in defeat pushing hard right to the end, as you never know what can happen in such conditions.
Despite the elements, the racing attracted a large flotilla of spectator craft and it made for great vision to see all of these vessels in seeming pursuit of the powerful rowing boats, against a backdrop of the magnificent Sydney Harbour and the iconic Harbour Bridge.
The Sydney crews wore black-arm bands as a mark of respect for the late esteemed journalist, Rebecca Wilson, who was a keen supporter of Sydney University Boat Club (SUBC) and rowing generally.
In the earlier College races, which proved an omen for the main event, University of Sydney’s St. Andrew’s Men’s Eight secured an impressive win over Ormond College, from the University of Melbourne. The winner of the ‘Taste the Race’ rowing challenge at the University of Sydney during the week, Tom Whitehead, was a key member of the St Andrew’s crew. The tables were turned though in the Women’s Eights with Ormond prevailing by just one boat length in the tightest finish of the four races on the programme. The College races featuring the winning Intercollegial crews from both Universities and there was tremendous tactical skill shown by both cox as they sought the best line over the shorter course.
At the presentation for the College races, Ormond Women’s captain, Kate Meggit accepted the trophy and St Andrew’s Men’s captain, Jack Cook did similarly on behalf of his crew.
Before a large crowd, University of Sydney Vice-Chancellor and Principal, Dr Michael Spence presented the medals to both Women’s crews in the Australian Boat Race. The Bella Guerin Trophy was bestowed to Melbourne by SUBC stalwart, Jane Spring. Spring was Sydney University Women’s Rowing Club President for a phenomenal 24 years and in 2010 was awarded for a Lifetime of Service to Rowing.
The Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Melbourne, Dr Glyn Davis presented the Australian Boat Race medals to the men’s crews, with the Edmund Barton Trophy handed to Sydney by the President and Chairman of Australian Rowing, Rob Scott, himself an Olympic silver medallist.
While there is a fierce rivalry between the respective Colleges and Universities, the annual Australian Boat Race is renowned for the wonderful spirit and camaraderie displayed by all competitors and coaches, who enjoyed brunch together afterwards at Dockside, Darling Harbour.
Huge congratulations go to all competing crews, coaches and support staff. Special mention to the irrepressible SUBC Australian Boat Race, Event Convenor, Chris Noel and SUBC Men’s Head Coach Mark Prater, who leaves a legacy of success and big shoes to fill as he takes up a coaching appointment at the Reinhold Batschi Men’s National Training Centre in Canberra with Rowing Australia.
The Australian Boat Race goes from strength to strength each year as an event and the final order of business was Dr Davis issuing the challenge to the University of Sydney to battle on the Yarra River against the University of Melbourne in one years’ time.