The Boat Race 2018: Late crew change could help Oxford

Oxford celebrate winning Boat Race in 2017
Despite crew changes, Oxford can follow up on last year's victory

Too much can probably be made of Boat Race statistics, writes Jack Houghton, and Oxford, despite squad unrest, are the value proposition

"The biggest factor this year may be the late withdrawal of Josh Bugajski from the Oxford crew..."

Where can I watch it?

This year's University Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge is on Saturday 24 March. The Women's race starts at 4.31pm, the Men's at 5.32pm. Rowers will no doubt tell you that the precision timing is crucial for tides or some such nonsense. It's more likely explained by the race's innate eccentricity.

Coverage begins on BBC1 at 3.50pm. Otherwise, you can venture into London and join the quarter-of-a-million other drinkers who cram the riverbank to watch a glorified canoe or two float by. It's in London, between Putney and Mortlake, so don't rock up in Oxford asking if it's home or away this year.

Is the head-to-head score relevant?

Probably not. Cambridge lead Oxford by 82 wins to 80 in the men's race, and by 42 wins to 30 in the women's race. Television commentators, in a bid to find something to say, will analyse the significance of these totals.

For what it's worth, the previous year's loser goes on to win the next year around 60% of the time.

Why am I watching television coverage of a coin toss?

When television commentators have found all there is to say about the head-to-head record, they will move on to the coin toss. Team captains practise predicting the outcome of the coin toss almost as hard as they practice their rowing, as it is crucial to the chances of their teams: in the run-up to the event they will rise an hour earlier than their fellow crew mates, eat some raw eggs, and engage in some intense tossing. "Give me heads!" they shout.

The successful tosser can choose the side of the river their crew will row from, Middlesex (North) or Surrey (South). The winning crew will see their odds shorten. Interestingly, the winner of the coin toss, though, has only gone on to race victory 54% of the time. This is likely because, despite a perceived advantage of rowing on the inside on the first bend if getting Middlesex, the two stations have provided a roughly equal number of winners.

A little more interesting, perhaps, is that captains who have won the toss and chosen Surrey have gone on to win around 62% of Boat Races, a statistic upheld by the winning Oxford crew last year.

The best approach for punters is probably to oppose any post-coin-toss betting moves on the basis that it is likely meaningless.

Why are they going on about the weight of the crews?

Weight is seen to be a likely indicator of rowing success, with heavier crews being at an advantage. It's a complex area, though. Heavier crews are generally more powerful, but they create more drag. Overall, the heavier crew has gone on to win the Boat Race 58% of the time, with that figure rising to 62% in more recent years. Again, with a lot of television time to fill, commentators will focus on the stats and facts of all this. At times, the obsession with crew weight becomes impolite.

Both Cambridge crews are heavier this year, probably due to the inherently unhealthy diet of the fenlands, or perhaps by accident. The women are 3kg a rower heavier than their Oxford counterparts, the men over 4kg heavier. These weight differences are significant, but not historic (in 2015, the light blue males out-bulked their rivals by over 5km a man). Also, the weights are skewed slightly by the tallest ever competitor, Cambridge's James Letten, who weighs in at over 106kg.

Plotting winning distances against crew weight advantages on a scatter diagram seems to show that, broadly speaking, the bigger the weight difference, the better the chance of victory, but also the better the chance of not winning by a great distance. Make of that what you will.

Is there any value to betting in-play?

Yes. 88% of boats to reach Hammersmith Bridge first have gone on to win.

Aren't these statistics all stuff-and-nonsense?

Quite possibly. After all, the race sees very different teams race once a year in varying weather and water conditions. The likes of James Cracknell certainly encourage us to look beyond the telly-filling statistics of weight and the coin toss, and instead look at the relative talent the crews offer.

The biggest factor this year may be the late withdrawal of Josh Bugajski from the Oxford crew, though. The official line is that his absence will be because of illness, but social-media rumours suggest otherwise. This disruption may, in some part, explain why Cambridge are the 2/5 favourites. However, such disruption can sometimes bring teams together, and with a support team who has helped deliver Oxford four wins in five years, 81/50 looks the value bet.

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