Rugby Union: Smith now a cut above

Andrew Preece finds that at last Britain has a chance to win around the world
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Britain was given its best chance yet of victory in the Whitbread race around the world when Silk Cut launched their challenge with the nation's leading sailor, Lawrie Smith, as skipper last week. For Smith, it is the chance he has endured three previous Whitbread races to enjoy.

But Smith's passage into Silk Cut colours has been convoluted, complicated and - in sailing terms - revolutionary. Having given up hope of finding a sponsor himself some six months ago when several leads failed to deliver, Smith signed on as skipper with Team EF, a Swedish syndicate running two entries, male and female. It was a formidable set-up and, with Smith at the helm, would have ranked among the favourites. However, there were always certain restrictions and provisos which left Smith without total control. Furthermore, the team was not British, which brought complications in crew selection.

But if Smith had given up on mounting a British challenge, his sponsorship agents had not and in September the first rumours arose that Silk Cut were interested in putting Smith in charge of a team with a budget of around pounds 5m - an adequate figure to put a realistic campaign on the water. It was a prospect that EF did not initially find attractive but they finally agreed, enticed in part by sailing's first recorded transfer fee, rumoured to be in excess of pounds 300,000.

So now Smith is running his own campaign and is sailing for Britain. But it is not all plain sailing from here. The American Paul Cayard fills his shoes at EF and though he is new to the Whitbread, Smith knows he will be a formidable opponent. "From my point of view I've got more control and if I want something I just get it, I don't have to worry about balancing the nationalities of the sailors" he says. "The downside is that I've introduced a bloody good competitor. He might not have Whitbread experience but people like Magnus [Ohlson, the project manager] have and he's getting into a good programme."

While the Silk Cut boat is being built in Australia and due to arrive in England by June, Smith and his key sailors - who left EF with him - will continue to train with EF in an arrangement they believe will elevate both groups above their other serious rivals.

In that time they will test sails and select the remaining few crew members they will need. "When the new boat arrives we will have done all our sail testing and the fact that we've got two boats sailing now and have had for three months we think puts us way ahead of our rivals. We'll sail the boat for a month to see what breaks and fix it, then we have to do a 3,000-mile qualifier, we'll do the Fastnet Race in August and then we'll be into race preparation, measurement and scrutiny in Southampton."

On a pragmatic level Smith knows the new deal can only be good for both of the teams; it is just a question of ultimately which one benefits most. The introduction of Cayard and the cooperation between the two teams, who will have five Whitbread 60s at their disposal in a few months' time, will serve only to worry their opposition.

Ohlson, who is masterminding the sailing side of the Swedish team, said: "Initially when this business of a transfer was mentioned I thought `this is bullshit, what's going on?' But then I thought about it a bit and I thought of the good it could do both teams and I thought, "Well, we all know Lawrie Smith is Britain's best sailor. Now we have the chance to find out who is the world's best sailor.' "

With Chris Dickson and Dennis Conner having teamed up some time ago, the former winner Grant Dalton launching his campaign in Monaco last week, and Smith, Cayard and other skippers all sailing new boats, there is no doubt that this race, which starts on 21 September, will be the most competitive yet. Whitbread expect 16 boats on the start line in the single Whitbread 60 class.

But for Smith this race will be something special because for the first time in four races he will cross the starting line in Southampton in a boat that he will believe is capable of winning. "It had better be," said the man who actually doesn't enjoy deep ocean racing much. "Because I'm not planning on doing many more of these things."