Brisbane Grammar celebrate their 2001 victory.
Brisbane Grammar celebrate their 2001 victory.

Head of the River: Olympics for schoolboys

RICHARD Powell has a very succinct description for the Head of The River.

"It is the Olympics for schoolboys," he says, and Powell should know.

In 1977 he rowed in the Grammar crew that won the O'Connor Cup and then represented Australia at the 1988 and 1992 Olympics.

Powell is one of four Grammar old boys to row at the Olympics, along with David Weightman (1996) Shaun Coulton (2004) and Sam Conrad in 2008.

 

They are part of a proud tradition that began when Grammar, along with The Southport School, Clayfield College (which later became BBC) and Technical College High School, took part in the first Head of the River in 1918.

Since that first race - for fours - in which Grammar finished second behind Southport, the school has won the Head of the River on 21 occasions - three in fours and 18 in eights, including the first Head of the River contested by eights in 1955.

"Getting into the First VIII for your school is the pinnacle," Powell said.

"It's like making the First XV. Every boy at school wants to do it, and then when you do, all you want to do is win the Head of the River.

Brisbane Grammar (centre) crosses the line to win the Head of the River on the Hinze Dam in 1981. Picture: Ted Holliday
Brisbane Grammar (centre) crosses the line to win the Head of the River on the Hinze Dam in 1981. Picture: Ted Holliday

"You can win every lead-up regatta in the season like Grammar and Churchie have in the past, but if you don't win the Head of the River, no-one remembers."

The importance the seven competing schools place on winning the event is such that Powell describes the amount of time and resources expended on it as "an arms race".

"The schools are all very keen to win it," he said.

"It enhances their prestige. The boys train like they are at the Olympics. They get flogged to death, which is why so many of them don't want to do it after they leave school.

"It's a strange thing. A lot of Olympians never won a Head of the River and plenty of Head of the River winners never picked up an oar after they left school."

Brisbane Grammar’s 2007 winning team.
Brisbane Grammar’s 2007 winning team.

But much as Powell has mixed feelings about the almost obsessive zeal with which some of the schools chase the O'Connor Cup, he has no doubts about the benefits that rowing can bring.

"It is a sport that gives you a lot of skills. From things like learning to use a spanner to tie up the boats, to team-work and commitment and just turning up on time," he said.

"In a sport like rugby or cricket if someone is late or doesn't turn up you can still train, but in rowing if someone doesn't show up you can't row.

"Even today I still get anxious about getting somewhere on time. I just can't contemplate being late."

And with all the hard work that it takes to make it into a Head of River crew - let along win the race - comes a sense of achievement that will last a lifetime.

"It is a really special event," Powell said. "Not everyone gets the opportunity to do it but when you do you can tick a box and reflect back on it when you're 70."

Brisbane Grammar School

O'CONNOR CUP WINS: 2007, 2001, 1999, 1997, 1995, 1988, 1984, 1981, 1980, 1979, 1977, 1976, 1967, 1965 (TIE W. BBC), 1964, 1960, 1955, 1934, 1929, 1928 (TIE W. BSHS).

TOTAL WINS: 20 incl. 2x ties