Cricket: Cayard haunts wary Italians

Andrew Preece finds America's Cup pacesetter is under pressure

IN THE business of trying to win the America's Cup, the grand moments of the last Christmas of the century and the dawn of a new millennium have been largely lost on the six teams who have made it to the semifinal of the Louis Vuitton Cup, en route, they hope, for a chance to take on Team New Zealand in America's Cup 2000. These are times of feverish boatwork and training and testing as the semi-final racing begins next weekend.

Racing in the third round-robin stage, after which the original field 11 challengers was whittled down to the current six, dribbled to an end two weeks ago. Then, the focus was on what became a three-way fight for the crucial sixth place between Young America, the French and the Spanish.

The French eventually made it, although not with a flamboyant demonstration of America's Cup sailing but because America True, having already qualified, decided not to turn up to meet them in the last race. That sent Young America the way of the Spanish, Australian, Hawaiian and Swiss syndicates amid delight and dismay in equal measure at the undignified early demise yet again of the New York Yacht Club's chosen warriors.

So now we are six, and no team will be more acutely aware of the fact that first is now no better than sixth than the Prada team who stood head and shoulders above the rest with a 26-3 record at the end of the round- robin stage. The Italians were fast out of the blocks when racing began in October but know full well that in the past the dream teams of the early rounds have proved vulnerable to the fast improvers as the slopes of the learning curves level out when it starts to really matter. Certainly the Prada team are the benchmark at which all of the other five are aiming with varying degrees of firepower and success.

On paper the strongest challenge should come from Paul Cayard's AmericaOne team, who have yet to introduce their new second boat to the race course. Cayard unsettled the New Zealanders back in 1992, overcoming that year's smooth operators to win the right to challenge when he was an Italian mercenary. He is also well aware of how to fight the psychological war that so often makes the difference as the sailing competition becomes more intense.

But if Cayard has more resources on which to pin his hopes, there are others who have impressed on the race course so far. The Japanese seem, for the first time in their cup history, to have a quick second boat, which they introduced successfully enough in round three to finish the round-robin series in second place behind Prada. And their skipper, Peter Gilmour, has the match-racing pedigree and the qualities to beat the likes of Cayard, although he has a huge weight on his lone shoulders.

Then there is the question of whether the single boat syndicates - America True, Team Dennis Conner and the French - can continue to make an impact. By finishing third, Dawn Riley's America True team split the two-boat syndicates and showed both speed and the ability to respond to the pressure. Team Dennis Conner showed bursts of speed but tactical fallibility until Conner's long-term friend and stabilising influence, Tom Whidden, was drafted into the afterguard. And if the weather brings light airs the French have a quick boat.

Most of the teams took yesterday off for private celebrations, but with millions of dollars at stake the festivities will not have lasted long. The semi-final, after which just two teams will be left standing, will see each of the six teams race everyone else twice. The form book would pit Prada against AmericaOne for the Louis Vuitton final, but with all of the other teams having shown the ability to win and with the weather in New Zealand so variable and so central to the performance profiles of most of the boats, it will be a compelling couple of weeks.

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