Meet Allan French - the man tasked with turning The Boat Race tide for Oxford Women

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Allan French is the man tasked with ending a disappointing run of results for Oxford Women in The Boat Race this year.

Oxford University haven't won the Women's Boat Race since 2016. There's a feeling, however, that the dark blues may turn the tide this year. If that does happen, it will be in no small part down to the new era ushered in by coach Allan French.

"I feel at home," Allan admits as he speaks to NationalWorld from the Oxford boathouse. The coach previously spent years building the women's programme at rowing titans Oxford Brookes on the famous stretch of the River Thames but his new task at hand is a different beast.

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"Nerves on race week are inevitable," Allan admits. "You have to just fall back on what you've done in the season. If you're trying to do too much on race week you've probably missed out on what's gone beforehand. It's important to trust in the training and the process - that should give people comfort."

Allan's first year on the job has come with challenges. Inclement weather has made water unrowable and Oxford has merged its lightweight and heavyweight squads. The coach admits: "I'll be brutally honest, it's been a very challenging year in terms of things that are outside of our control. The Boat Race crews don't get away with not being able to row like the rest of the population."

The times that Oxford have got on the water in front of the public eye, the results posted have been impressive. With no win since 2016, many may consider the club underdogs again this year but others have tipped the University for an almighty comeback.

Asked if it's Cambridge's race to lose, the Oxford man replies: "You have to look at what's happened in the past. Cambridge have a lot of momentum. You can't avoid that and it would be naive to think it doesn't give them something to come into it with. We've got to believe and turn it around."

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The Oxford crew mixes Allan's new influence with previous Boat Race experience in 2023's Claire Aitken, Sarah Marshall and Ella Stadler along with 2022's Julia Lindsay and Annie Anezakis - "they've been fantastic and used it to help while embracing the changes," their coach shared.

The standout period on Allan's CV is his time at Oxford Brookes, which he labels an 'enjoyable and rewarding' stint between 2012 and 2018. He adds: "There aren't many programmes like a Brookes programme. There was a real opportunity to build a strong women's programme which the athletes could get a huge amount from. There was a buzz and something people wanted to be part of.

Allan French is new in the Oxford role this year. (Image: Row360)Allan French is new in the Oxford role this year. (Image: Row360)
Allan French is new in the Oxford role this year. (Image: Row360) | Row360

"I look back at Brookes and think of athletes coming in with no rowing experience, coming through the programme and going on to represent Great Britain and Olympic teams. Seeing that somebody can walk through the door, be part of something - work hard as an absolute essential - and are still getting stuff out of it."

It turned heads when Allan then moved from one of the UK's most illustrious programmes to an up-and-coming school project at Reading Blue Coat School (RBC). That came for more family time but also as a fresh test.

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Sitting on a prime stretch of the Thames with a boathouse on site and access to London and Henley, it proved an exciting opportunity. Under his guidance, the school picked up a first-ever 1st 8+ win at Schools Head and progressed to the second day of Henley Royal Regatta.

Allan reflects: "I wanted to go into a junior programme and try and make changes almost on my own. Brookes is a big engine and I wanted a new test and to learn."

After five years, the opportunity to join Oxford University came up and was too irresistible for a coach who thrives on side-by-side battles. With his past experience at Brookes, Allan admitted he was 'confident' and 'excited' he could breathe new life into the programme that had struggled at recent Boat Races.

The work that has gone on will be on show this Saturday with nowhere to hide in the dramatic race. Thinking about the drama of The Boat Race, Allan said: "It's very raw. You're not going in trying to place or medal, you're trying to win it. It's one chance. I think it brings out the best in people with nowhere to hide, the gritty, determined form of rowing."

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To get to better know the Oxford Women's coach, NationalWorld speaks to a rower, coxswain and coaching colleague from Allan's recent roles.

Oxford Women set for 'emotional pre-race chat'

Susie Dear learnt to row under Allan French at Oxford Brookes University.Susie Dear learnt to row under Allan French at Oxford Brookes University.
Susie Dear learnt to row under Allan French at Oxford Brookes University. | Susie Dear

Susie Dear learnt to row at Oxford Brookes University in 2012, the same year that Allan joined the programme. Susie's career would take her on to Sydney Rowing Cub, Leander Rowing Club and the British Rowing team. She now works as a Student Support Officer at Oxford Brookes.

Q: What made you want to start rowing at Oxford Brookes and what was your first meeting with Allan?

A: I learnt to row off the back of watching the 2012 Olympics. I remember going along to the Freshers Fair to sign up in my second year. I thought these people seem intimidating, tall and athletic - I went to the stand and bottled it and turned around. Allan tapped me on the shoulder and asked if I was looking to start rowing and that was it.

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Q: As he is with Oxford University, Allan was in his first year then. What was his approach like?

A: The thing with Allan that makes him so approachable is he is unbelievably welcoming, and non-judgemental, he has time for everyone. I didn't know which way was up at that point in my life and he helped me understand myself and get the most out of the sport.

Q: How about on the water - was there a harder side to Allan then?

A: Allan was very good at getting the most out of somebody and collectively as a team. He had perfect timing in terms of knowing when to push an athlete on and when to recognise when someone has a lot on their plate, academically or personally. Allan made you feel valued for everything you had to offer, rather than judge you for the one thing you didn't have. He is very good at recognising that difference brings strength.

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Q: Is the side-by-side drama of The Boat Race the type of event Allan thrives on?

A: Oh, I'd say so! The pre-race chats he used to give us at Henley, he'd get emotional! It's a really important part of being a coach, having that passion and showing the athletes you care. You'd feel so empowered and not afraid to dream and put yourself out there. He gave us the confidence that anything was achievable.

Q: Should Oxford not get the win on Saturday, how will Allan respond to that?

A: He was a big one for learning from not getting the result you want. He was very good at figuring out what we did well and making a plan for where we could improve. He would never blame us and think of it as a 'we' with himself included.

The link between rower and coach 'with cox in middle'

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Tom Bryce learnt the coxing ropes under Allan French at RBC.Tom Bryce learnt the coxing ropes under Allan French at RBC.
Tom Bryce learnt the coxing ropes under Allan French at RBC. | Tom Bryce

Tom Bryce came through the Reading Blue Coat School programme under Allan and now coxes at Oxford Brookes University. He has won Henley Royal Regatta with Brookes and the U23 World Championship as part of the British Rowing team.

Q: What were the most notable changes at RBC when Allan arrived?

A: The biggest thing Allan brings to a club is his energy. He's unbelievably passionate about rowing and his squad. The excitement he brought to the club and his vision energised everyone. He gets so excited about it and it gets the whole Boat Club excited they can go on and achieve it. Each year that picture changed but no matter what, that energy and belief never changed.

Q: How does Allan motivate his crews?

A: Going into Oxford, Allan will have had a lot of challenges. He's very good at picking and choosing the carrot or the stick. He'll bring a mixture, he won't shout at someone but you know if he's not happy. He's got that level of respect for the athletes. He's got that experience of how to treat a squad.

Q: What was the relationship like with Allan as a cox?

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A: The relationship he built with me and other coxes, he's always a bit closer to the coxes but that's how a club should be. That builds that link between coach and athlete with cox in the middle. We always had a mutual trust that if anything was said that an athlete shouldn't hear - because everyone gets frustrated every now and again - that wouldn't get transferred. Overall, he's very front up and he'd rarely say something to a cox and not the rowers.

Q: What was your reaction when Allan left RBC for Oxford?

A: Every year he stayed at Blue Coat was a bit of a blessing because I knew how good he was. Every September there was always a minor thought of whether another project might have snapped him up. As soon as Allan told me he had applied I knew he'd get the job.

Drawing a line between 'raw emotion' and 'professionalism'

Zoe Taylor worked alongside Allan French in his previous post at Reading Blue Coat School.Zoe Taylor worked alongside Allan French in his previous post at Reading Blue Coat School.
Zoe Taylor worked alongside Allan French in his previous post at Reading Blue Coat School. | Zoe Taylor

Zoe Taylor started rowing at the age of 13 years old with Reading Rowing Club and eventually rowed under Allan's coaching at Oxford Brookes University. She is now Assistant Head of Rowing at Reading Blue Coat School and worked alongside Allan at the Berkshire Boat Club.

Q: As a fellow coach, what can you tell us about Allan's approach to coaching students?

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A: He has a really good balance. The rowers that work with him have a great level of respect but that's because he treats them very much as people that have lives away from rowing. It was almost as if he was a second dad. He was an older figure but wasn't your friend, he was someone you went to when in a conundrum and didn't know what to do. He'd always make the time to listen.

Q: What is it like having Allan as a colleague?

A: Allan and I are now very close friends and he's very human in himself, he feels things deeply and has really raw emotions. It's a real strength but where he draws the line with professionalism is really good. He gains a lot of reassurance from doing his job well.

Q: What is the trademark of an Allan training programme?

A: His underlying thing is you've got to want to work hard. If you don't want to work hard, it's a non-starter. He's a very good technical coach but he would probably say, 'I'm not the world's best technical coach but I know how to get the most out of people'. He would say to the students, if you have two boats side-by-side and one works harder, nine times out of 10 they are probably going to win. It might not be the prettiest or the most sustainable but sometimes you just have to get on with it.

Q: How is Allan going to go about turning the tide of recent Boat Race results?

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A: He just wants to simplify it all. At the end of the day, there are going to be two boats and one is going to win. With Oxford students, they have brilliant brains and that can be difficult as they don't necessarily want to simplify it. Part of Allan's ethos is, it's really hard to work hard and row badly. It's that grittiness they've shown in a couple fixtures that is definitely from him.

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