Daniel Spring |

The Henley that never was

In normal times, all eyes would be on Henley Royal Regatta from Wednesday 1 July to Sunday 5 July. For many, it’s the pinnacle of the racing calendar, both on and off the water. Daniel Spring assesses what might have unfolded.

As lockdown drags on, the cancellation of the summer regatta calendar really begins to hit hard, none more so than Henley Royal Regatta. So, it’s time to play a little game of ‘what if?’.

Just for a moment, let’s pretend that COVID-19 never happened and the rowing season had progressed as planned. Who would have come away with a precious red box that signifies you’re a Henley Royal Regatta winner?

The first question to ask, particularly for the open events, is who was going to enter?

If there’s no COVID-19 then there would be no delay to the Tokyo Olympics, and with the Olympics originally scheduled to start just a few weeks after Henley it’s extremely doubtful that any Olympic competitors would have entered.

So, without the Olympic teams coming to race, who would there be to race the Grand and the Remenham Challenge Cups? I suppose it’s possible that an international crew that failed to qualify for Tokyo may have seen Henley as a ‘consolation prize’ – the New Zealand men’s eight perchance – but I think that’s a bit unlikely. More likely would be that the top eights’ events could have seen a showdown between U23 national crews.

Brookes, Nereus, Yale, Harvard and University of Washington in the Grand anyone?

The 2020 U23 World Championships were due to take place in the Slovenian city of Bled in August, so a run-out at Henley would have been great preparation. Alternatively, it could have been an opportunity for some of the world’s best collegiate programmes to have a tilt at the top title. Brookes, Nereus, Yale, Harvard and University of Washington in the Grand or University of Washington, Michigan or Texas in the Remenham anyone?

I think it would be a similar story in the open fours and quads – no Olympic crews in attendance, but a great opportunity for the U23s to race for the top events.

Where things get a bit more interesting is in the small boats. While I wouldn’t envisage any Tokyo competitors making an appearance, the small boats offer opportunities for national team members – who perhaps missed out on Olympic selection – to have something to aim towards. Add in the U23s and it makes for an intriguing prospect. We could see the eighth and ninth-ranked scullers from GB taking on the first and second-ranked U23 GB scullers. It could be fun!

It’s also possible that those national crews who didn’t qualify for Tokyo – especially among the lightweights – might fancy giving the men’s Double Sculls Challenge Cup or the women’s double sculls – the Stonor – a go.

The Diamonds and Princess Royal Challenge Cups for men’s and women’s single sculls are perhaps where we could have seen the most senior internationals compete.

Just looking at the talent in the GB men’s sculling squad, there are more people than seats available for Olympic places, with athletes such as Tom Barras, Jack Beaumont, John Collins, Angus Groom, Pete Lambert, Harry Leask, Graeme Thomas and Jonny Walton competing for just six Olympic seats, plus one spare. All these rowers have won medals at European and World Championships. For the one who misses out, then a crack at the Diamonds may be a poor consolation, but a consolation, nonetheless.

It is, perhaps, in the junior events where the cancellation of Henley will be felt most keenly

Just as an aside, should Jack Beaumont ever win the Diamonds, he will become the first man to win every sculling event at the regatta – the Fawley, Prince of Wales, Queen Mother, Double Sculls and Diamonds. Maybe in 2022, eh Jack?

Meanwhile, entries for the intermediate events tend to be less impacted in an Olympic year. If the US varsity crews had made the trip to Henley this year and not been ‘bumped’ to the Grand, we might well have seen some exciting racing in the Ladies’ Challenge Plate and the Visitors.

Imagine the top US varsity crews, versus the likes of Oxford Brookes, Leander and Molesey with perhaps some talented German, Dutch and Norwegian club or U23 crews…

The Prince of Wales has long been the preserve of Leander Club – they won this title in seven out of eight years between 2010 and 2017 – losing the final in 2016 to a crew from the USA by just 4ft. But, their dominance has waned as they failed to make the finals in the last two years.

The Dutch from AASR Skøll have emerged as the new challengers, winning in 2018 and then losing to the GB U23 quad in 2019. So, 2020 might have seen another showdown with the Dutch and perhaps a resurgence of Leander to regain their title.

But it’s the club events that really make Henley what it is.

These events always generate a lot of interest and excitement – and the biggest cheers going past Remenham Club. In years to come, rowers up and down the land will be propping up their club bars, saying how 2020 was going to be “their” year. For the majority of club oarsmen -and, from 2021, oarswomen as well – Henley is the pinnacle of the racing calendar, both on and off the water.

In the Thames Cup, Thames Rowing Club have made the final in four of the last five years – winning three of them – including an all-Thames final in 2017. But, with the departure of their inspirational coach, Ben Lewis, at the end of the 2019 season, it remains to be seen if Thames can continue their strong form.

In years to come, rowers up and down the land will be propping up their club bars saying how 2020 was going to be their year

This year’s Henley should have seen the inauguration of the Island Challenge Cup – the event for student women’s eights. This could well have seen an influx of US varsity crews – perhaps some doing the Henley Women’s and Henley Royal double.

In previous years these crews would have been limited to the Remenham Challenge Cup, but now they have their own event it could well have seen a bumper entry.

In the Temple Challenge Cup there are probably only four men’s university programmes in Europe – Oxford, Cambridge, Oxford Brookes and Nereus – that could compete with the top US varsity programmes, but in the women’s student eights I don’t think there are currently any. I’ve a feeling that the winner of the Island Challenge Cup would have been between whichever US varsity programmes had entered.

But it is, perhaps, in the junior events where the cancellation of Henley this year will be felt most keenly.

It would have been fascinating to see if any UK school could have broken the duopoly between St Paul’s and Eton

I would imagine there are scores of young rowers and scullers for whom this year would have been the pinnacle of their school rowing careers. Some might have been looking up to the year-13 rowers and scullers racing on the famous course and thinking ‘One day that’ll be me’ since being a J13 or J14.

It’s a tough pill to swallow, and I’m sure many of them will be back to race in the other Henley events, but there is something special about racing the junior events and I feel for those who are missing out this year.

It would have been fascinating to see if any UK school could have broken the duopoly in the Princess Elizabeth between St Paul’s and Eton, who between them have won the event for five of the last six years, or whether there might have been a foreign challenger from Australia like Scotch College coming over to take their second title in four years.

With a new junior women’s eights event starting in 2021, open to clubs as well as schools, it’ll be interesting to see if the rules for the Princess Elizabeth are changed as well. This would open up the event not just to UK clubs, but also to exceptionally strong junior club crews from places such as Germany and the USA. So, this year could well have been the last year of the Princess Elizabeth as a purely schools’ event.

Both the Fawley and Diamond Jubilee Challenge Cups have always made for compelling viewing, offering the chance for clubs and schools to go head-to-head, and often producing some truly exceptional racing. With the junior women’s eights’ trophy next year, it’s going to be fascinating to see how the schools and clubs prioritise the two events.

So that was the ‘Henley That Never Was’, but perhaps having a fallow year is no bad thing after all. With huge changes coming for the 2021 Regatta – six days and two new women’s events – it is perhaps fitting for Henley, and the Henley crowd, to have taken a breather this year before plunging into the greater delights that await us all in 2021!

In the meantime, stay safe.

Don’t miss Henley at Home on 4-5 July! This special weekend will celebrate the best races at Henley Royal Regatta from the last five years, including interviews with athletes involved and some of the biggest names in rowing.

Photo: Naomi Baker