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Henley 2021: 5 crews, 1 final

Richard Ellis and Matt Pooley describe the Club's brilliant experience at this year's Henley Royal Regatta.

In summary…

Henley Royal Regatta 2021 was a fantastic year for Lea Rowing Club. We had:

5 crews that qualified

4 crews that made it through the first round”

3 crews that made semi-finals

2(-): our first ever senior women’s crew to qualify

1 crew that made the final

Read on for full details!

The lead-up: Different to usual

Henley Royal Regatta 2021 was slightly different to usual. For the first time ever it was being held in mid-August.

From a preparation perspective this meant that Marlow Regatta was a full seven weeks before Henley as opposed to the usual fortnight. A lot can happen in seven weeks. The formbook for Henley was therefore a little uncertain.

The week itself was different too. No boat tents, a different boating location, different hospitality arrangements…But the racing in the club events was just as fierce as ever. Hats off to the Stewards for staging the regatta. It cannot have been easy to get everything planned against a backdrop of such a moveable feast of legislation.

The crews: Representation from all parts of the club

The athletes and coaches involved represent every part of our club – men, women, junior and senior.

The top ranked men’s boat was a Wyfold four, followed by a Thames Cup eight and a Britannia coxed four. Unfortunately, the coxed four had to withdraw at the eleventh hour due to illness and injury but the other two boats made it onto the start line unscathed.

The women’s pair of Rebecca Minnich and Caroline Newbury was the first Lea senior women’s crew ever to qualify – in the top-level event.

Our juniors sent three crews – two boys’ Fawley quads, and one girls’ Diamond Jubilee quad. The second boys’ quad unfortunately did not make it past the qualifying races, but they gained valuable experience for next season.

Diamond Jubilee Challenge Cup: made it to Wednesday

Our girls’ quad had suffered from injury and illness through the season. There was serious racing pedigree in the crew – including a doubles medal at the National Junior Championships – and on another day we might have hoped for a different result.

The girls sculled beautifully and fought valiantly against a Tideway Scullers crew but were unfortunately beaten to the line. They represented us with pride and we wish those of them that are now leaving us further success both on and off the water.

Thames Challenge Cup: made it to Thursday

The Thames Cup eight drew Star Club from Bedford in the first round. This crew hadn’t raced anywhere but the general intel was that the crew were a masters outfit. This proved to be correct and Star put up a good performance over the first part of the course but we were well in control for the second half of the race and able to enjoy a good row up the enclosures.

Thursday brought us up against an eight from Vesta, which was their top ranked crew. We gave it everything early on, pushing back on Vesta in the early stages and taking the race to them but they moved away in the latter stages. The crew were happy with their row, having left everything they had out on the course.

Hambleden Pairs Challenge Cup: Semi-finalists

The Hambleden Pairs Challenge Cup is the women’s equivalent of the Silver Goblets. It is testament to the efforts of Rebecca Minnich and Caroline Newbury that they were not only they first ever Lea senior women’s crew to qualify for Henley Royal Regatta, but they did so in an “open” event, entered by internationals and top student crews.

Not only did they qualify, they made the semi-final, being declared ‘extremely sophisticated’ by the Henley commentary team when crossing the line well clear of Bath University. Eventually knocked out by two U23 medallists representing Tideway Scullers, they have much to be proud off.

Fawley Challenge Cup: Semi-finalists

The junior boys’ Fawley quad was simply superb. Their Friday race against Exeter in particular showed guts and determination coupled with the awareness needed to keep good technique when under pressure. The crew came from behind to win by 2/3 of a length, after a phenomenal halfway push.

The crew was eventually knocked out in an eventful semi-final by a fast Tideway Scullers quad. Despite this, they can rightly claim to be one of the top junior crews in Great Britain, in what is arguably Henley’s most competitive event.

Wyfold Challenge Cup: Finalists

The Wyfold four started their campaign off against Maidstone Invicta. Wyfold races can be nervy, unpredictable affairs, particularly in gusty crosswinds and against a relatively strong stream. Nothing can be taken for granted and clashes can be common. The crew got out fast and established an early lead getting clear of Maidstone as soon as possible and settling to an easy pace over the course. This was a good nerve settler. Thursday was another potential banana skin to negotiate in the form of Vesta Rowing club. We knew their steering wasn’t perfect so again needed to get clear early on. Vesta made this easier for us by hitting the booms but we made harder work of the race than was necessary by being disjointed and rowing as four individuals rather than a crew. Nevertheless we got the job done with plenty in hand.

We had expected to be racing Upper Thames on the Friday. Upper Thames had been the fastest Wyfold eligible crew at Marlow Regatta but they had been surprised by a crew from Nottingham on the Wednesday, losing by a third of a length. Nottingham looked very strong, particularly in the middle part of the race but they also looked vulnerable at the start and finish when their bladework and accuracy suffered at higher rates. It was a hell of a race, a real scrap. We went off very hard and took an early lead but Nottingham settled into their strong mid race rhythm and gradually pegged us back. Coming into the enclosures there wasn’t much in it but the crew put in a really solid push and got their noses in front. At this point Nottingham’s bladework and steering started to go and we went over the line three-quarters of a length to the good. The time was fast too, faster than any of the other quarter finals and faster than three of the four Visitors Challenge Cup races that day too.

Saturday brought us up against Northwich Rowing Club who had beaten London Rowing Club the previous day. That was London’s top ranked boat with their four best athletes on board so we knew we were in for a tough race. Northwich comprised four of their returning juniors, most of whom had represented Great Britain at junior level. Northwich were an experienced, quick crew.

Again we resorted to the tried and tested race plan. Get out of the blocks as hard as possible, keep the cadence high past the quarter mile and then look to lengthen out around the barrier (2 mins approx.). We got our noses in front and then tried to keep it there. Northwich were not going to hand it to us though and kept pushing hard up the course. As we approached the enclosures it was neck and neck with Northwich getting their bows in front for a few strokes. Once again Lea pushed hard with the rate up to 40 in the enclosures and 43 approaching the finish we got over the line by ¾ of a length.

The crew assured me that they had another gear. (!)

That moved us into the final against Thames Rowing Club; the first Henley final for the club since 1995. Thames had been strong through the regatta, dispatching Tideway Scullers and Kingston with some ease. We tried our usual race plan. If it ain’t bust don’t fix it. This time however, our strong start was met with an equally strong response from Thames. The crew tried to hit a rhythm but couldn’t really find it on this occasion. We needed a top-drawer row to stay with Thames but just couldn’t find it. Nerves perhaps or the effect of two extremely hard races – who can tell? The crew pushed hard all the way down, again up at 40 plus through the enclosures but Thames were able to soak up the pushes and remained out of reach.

In conclusion: A superb regatta

This brought to an end what actually was a superb regatta for the Lea. Not just for this crew and the men’s squad but for the whole club.

The long gap between Marlow Regatta and Henley could have been a vacuum but instead we were able to train alongside one another, keep the intensity bubbling away and make significant speed gains in the run up to Henley.

Hopefully we can replicate this next season and keep knocking on the door of that elusive Henley win. We made the semi finals in 2015 and 2019. We made the final in 2021. We just need to go one step further…

Words: Richard Ellis (Head men's coach) and Matt Pooley (Club Captain).

Photos: Official HRR photography; Allmarkone for the Fawley Challenge Cup (boys quad)

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