Great race – great result for Sydney

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Sydney University made it three from three in the modern era of the Australian Boat Race when they held sway over the men’s eight from Melbourne University on a 4.3km course on Sydney Harbour on Sunday.

The Sydney University crew eight held a 5.3 second advantage over Melbourne to claim the Edmund Barton trophy, having elected to take the southern station when the toss was made at a pre-race reception on Friday.

Fergus Pragnell, the stroke of the winning Sydney University eight who made the decision in consultation with coxswain Will Raven and coach Mark Prater, said he had taken a risk choosing the southern station.

With the race starting a Woolwich, the northern station crew had the advantage of leading at the first left-hand bend and heading for the finish line at Darling Harbour. Melbourne University’s women’s eight had already demonstrated the tactic when they won the toss, chose the northern station and won the short sprint to the first turn, then controlled the race across the harbor to run out winners.

But Pragnell and his men had different ideas, having outwitted Melbourne on the bends of the Yarra River in 2011.

In the short rough and tumble start, the crews twice touched oars before Sydney emerged ahead at the first bend at the mouth of the Lane Cover River at Greenwich Point. The course then took the crews just north of Balmain at Long Nose Point, Birchgrove, and past Snails Bay before they negotiated the narrows between Goat Island and Simmons Point.

While passing Darling Street Wharf the eights changed from a south-east course to a southerly course which took them past the new Barrangaroo development site, with King Street Wharf on the left and the Maritime Museum on the right as they closed in on the finishing line at Darling Harbour.

Having come out of the Lane Cover River ahead, Sydney University responded to every move Melbourne made to run out winners.

“We knew that we had to be pretty courageous to hold Melbourne round the first turn, but it probably panned out better for us than what we’d hoped for,” said Pragnell, one of seven rowers in the four crews (two men’s and two women’s) who competed at the London Olympic Games.

“When we were only a couple of seats down after a good start we were really confident.”

After the early close-quarters competition, Pragnell said Sydney’s mid-race rhythm enabled the crew to establish an advantage and move into a race-winning lead that was much more comfortable than last year’s close finish.

In the women’s race, even the presence of Olympian Bronwen Watson was not enough for Sydney to stop Melbourne University notching up a decisive win.

Having taken the advantageous station, the Melbourne crew established an early lead they never looked like giving up as they rowed into the finish line.

The Australian Boat Race was revived in 2009 to mark the 150th anniversary of the establishment of the two rowing clubs. Such was the success of the race down the Yarra River in Melbourne the two universities decided to make it an annual event – the antipodean version of the Oxford-Cambridge boat race.

Melbourne University won the men’s and women’s races in 2009 when they were held as part of the annual Head of the Yarra regatta.

But Sydney University’s men’s eight took revenge in 2010 when they dominated on a 7.3km course across Sydney Harbour – starting near the Leichhardt Rowing Club, following the Balmain peninsula in a loop past Cockatoo Island and into the Lane Cove River and finishing at St Ignatius College Wharf. Melbourne University made it two from two in the women’s eight.

Sydney University men’s eight made it back-to-back wins when they won the 2011 event with a corner-cutting technique on the Yarra in a race that sparked much drama and media and spectator interest.

By now a stand-alone race between two old university rivals, rowed on the main waterways of the two great cities, the 2011 event lived up to the prospect. Sydney University won the 4.2km men’s eight, rowed on the old King’s Cup course, in exciting fashion and Melbourne women’s eight, with four national A representatives on board, won their third straight match race.

Now a recognised sporting event in the two capitals with plenty of media coverage, Sydney University retained the Edmund Barton Trophy for the men’s event, while Melbourne University went home with the Belinda Guerin Trophy, which is contested by the women’s eights.