Kiwi polish fit for the challenge

America's Cup: After cruising to the final, Team New Zealand are ready to claim the big prize. Mike Turner reports
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The Independent Online
TEAM NEW ZEALAND, which will next month race to win the America's Cup, is looking as strong as any challenger in the post-war era - and that includes the years of 1983 and 1987 in which the defending boats were beaten. The Kiwis' march to claiming the Louis Vuitton Cup and sole right to face the Americans has been powerful. Beaten only once in 38 starts, though they later had one win taken from them, they have been dominant throughout.

Masterminding their progress has been the overall manager, Peter Blake, the technical director, Tom Schnackenberg, and the skipper, Russell Coutts. Blake is well known on the ocean-racing circuit, particularly the Whitbread Round the World Race, which he won at his fifth attempt, "Schnacks" is the professional sailmakers' professional, and Coutts has two match race world championships to his credit as well as an Olympic gold medal.

So unambiguous has the Kiwis' success been that they have been able to take four or five days off racing while the home crews of Stars and Stripes, Young America and Mighty Mary have been fighting tooth and nail for the right to meet them in the best-of-nine series beginning on 6 May.

Until 1986, the tiny nation of three-and-a-half million had never competed in the America's Cup. Wherever there is a major sailing regatta in the world, there is always a strong band of New Zealanders racing on the top boats so their arrival to take on nations with 15 decades of experience was not a shock. But no one expected to be given such a hard time.

The 25-year-old Chris Dickson, who this year was on Tag-Heuer Challenge, skippered KZ7 a revolutionary glass fibre boat to 35 wins and a single loss in the waters around Fremantle, Western Australia on the way to the challengers' final. There he had to contend with the relentless progress of Dennis Conner, who, fuelled by the shame of having to challenge for the America's Cup in foreign waters was determined to blow away the bitterness of being the first American to lose in 132 years.

The Kiwis again made the challengers' final in 1992, when they were beaten 4-3 by more liberally funded Italians having been 3-1 ahead, but this time they have gone further than ever before and have their greatest chance of bringing the ultimate prize, and the right to hold the next competition, back to New Zealand.

Without the aggressive Michael Fay, who funded all three of their previous attempts on the title, the Kiwis have a lower-key approach. The height of arrogance for them this time is to say "we may have a slight edge" even though until last week they had run the perfect two-boat programme. They had gone undefeated through four rounds robin of six races each and the first nine races of the semi-final; they did not even turn up for the last three races of the semi-final because they had already done enough and spending time developing their boats was more important. The only drawback was for the Kiwis was a narrow 15sec victory for John Bertrand (who is the only non-American to have won the America's Cup) on oneAustralia last weekend.

New Zealand's is a remarkable achievement: four America's Cups and four times either reaching the challenger finals or being in the cup itself, while at the same time winning Olympic medals in sailing, both classes of the 1993/94 Whitbread Race, and leading a successful assault on the Jules Verne record of sailing round the world in a record 74 days and 22 hours.

When they were knocked out by the Italians in 1992 their village, away from the other syndicates and intensely introverted in Coronado, was like a settlement hit by a mining disaster. This time they are at the heart of the action on Shelter Island, clearly enjoying themselves more, but still able to exhibit the focus which they share with other Kiwi competitors such as the All Blacks.

Now they have to win five more races of about two-and-a-half hours each to make history of their own and probably some Kiwi dollars for astute property investors. They are still quietly pushing forward. The design team of Laurie Davidson, the American Doug Peterson, and Britain's David Alan-Williams are able and willing to make changes with confidence.

The sails they have developed are as pretty as any in San Diego, the crew is settled, and Coutts has the respect of them all. The Americans will need something special to knock them off course, so capable are the Kiwis. The most capable since Alan Bond lifted the Cup for Australia on a winged keel in Newport, Rhode Island in 1983.

America's Cup results so far

Louis Vuitton Cup

(challengers)

Round robin one: 1 RNZYS (Team New Zealand) 6pts; 2 Tutukaka YC (Tag- Heuer Challenge) 5pts; 3 Nippon YC (Tokio) 4pts; 4 Southern Cross (oneAustralia) 3pts; 5 Australia YC (Sydney 95) 2pts; 6 Bayona-Valencia (Cade) 0 pts.

Semi-finals: 1 RNZYS 9 wins; 2 Southern Cross 7 wins; 3 Tutukaka YC 6 wins; 4 Nippon YC 0 wins.

Final: RNZYS 5 oneAustralia 1.

Citizen Cup (defenders)

Round robin one: 1 Pact '95 (Young America) 5pts; 2 Team Dennis Conner (Stars & Stripes) 3pts; 3 America3 1pt.

Semi-finals: 1 Pact '95 9pts; 2 America3 (Mighty Mary) 4pts; 3 Team Dennis Conner 1pt.

Finals (current standings): 1 Team Dennis Conner 5pts; 2 Pact 95, 4pts; 3 America3 3pts.

America's Cup (best of nine)

6, 8, 9, 11, 13, 14, 16, 18, 20 May. Reserve days: 21, 23, 25, 27 May.

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