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Gladwell's Line: America's Cup-lite a tougher task for the Defender

by Richard Gladwell, Sail-World.com/nz 11 Jul 21:27 PDT 12 July 2018
Emirates Team New Zealand come up against one of the now Super Teams formerly Land Rover BAR and now INEOS Team UK © Richard Gladwell

The announcement of the America's Cup entries proved to be a damp squib, with nothing new emerging, due to prior announcements by the teams.

Mainstream sports commentators were quick to seize on the point that three Challengers were America's Cup-lite,many stating the obvious that entries were well shy of the seven or eight anticipated.

An interview with four times America's Cup winner, Brad Butterworth on RadioLive on Sunday put a much needed spark into the regatta that has been notable for its bonhomie for the past 12 months.

Butterworth responded to a series of leading questions in his usual way - when he can't think of a politically correct answer - and just tells it how it is.

The interviewers seemed determined to hang some of the "blame" for America's Cup-lite on Team New Zealand, and its CEO Grant Dalton in particular.

Responding to leading questions as to whether Team New Zealand was well liked [amongst the sailing community]. Butterworth would not initially be drawn.

"As a group of sailors and the way they have fought back and won - you've got to take your hat off to them."

In response to the follow-up question, Butterworth could sense the way the discussion was headed responding:

"You guys are pushing me to talk about Dalton."

"Of course, he is a bit of a blunt nail. He plays pretty hard in all aspects of it. He's going to upset a few people. But that's the way it goes, and that's the way he plays that game. There's not much you can do about that."

When pushed further as to whether Dalton's hard demeanor was a reason for the lack of entries, Butterworth chuckled: "I don't think so. Maybe a few other people would disagree with me, but I don't think so," he laughed.

[To read the full interview click here.]

The angle taken by many in the mainstream sports media was that the America's Cup Defender owed it to New Zealand to get as many Challengers into the Auckland event as possible - even if that meant evening up the technical and sailing advantage that New Zealand enjoys as a legacy of the last America's Cup.

Some have commented that the USD$1million late entry fee is an issue. But during the week in discussions with a couple of potential Challengers, who had not yet entered, none mentioned the USD$1million late entry fee as being an issue. Team New Zealand has confirmed they have offered the Challengers a basic design package. That gives the late starters a leg-up and will give them one good boat and be a big step towards their second AC75 if that is what they are going to do. Neither does the new 100% Nationality Rule seem to be a deterrent.

For sure the competitive advantage enjoyed by Team New Zealand in Bermuda is rather daunting. They led Oracle Team USA around 49 of 54 marks in the nine races sailed. That is a walloping by any measure - but then America's Cup Matches are usually rather one-sided affairs. Team NZ's battle with Artemis Racing was much more even with the Swedish challenger having a slight advantage in mark leading statistics, but they were an unlucky team - and any marginal situation always went against the Swedes.

Another point missed by many critical of America's Cup-lite is that three well funded, well organised Challengers, or Super Teams are a much more formidable Defence proposition for Emirates Team New Zealand.

It means that every race in the Challenger Round Robin, the Semi-Finals and Finals is a hard one against solid opposition.

Their risk is that they don't repeat the 2000 Louis Vuitton Cup Final which was the most closely contested final ever. Many felt that Luna Rossa which finally prevailed over America One 5-4, left their best racing in the Challenger Final

From Team New Zealand's perspective it would be much better for the Challenger ranks to be padded out with several first time, one boat Challengers who are there for the experience and exposure. That way the Super Teams would not get the opportunity of hard racing - two days on/one day off - which appears to be the way the racing schedule will work out with just three entries.

Contrast that situation with previous Cups enjoying double digit Challenger entries - the top teams have only got a couple of hard races each round, with the outcomes of the other contests being quite predictable.

Under the current version of the Protocol, there are Repechages built into the schedule - so there is less of the sudden death at the end of the elimination rounds as happened in Bermuda.

That means still more solid racing for the Challengers between all three Super Teams.

Grant Dalton's best Defence strategy, at this juncture, is to fatten up the Challenger ranks with first-time teams that will stall the amount of hard racing between the Super Teams until the Semi-Finals.

The Defender is allowed to start two-boat sailing, "from the time of the first scheduled race in the CSS" [Challenger Selection Series]. It is not clear if this from the date of the first race to the date through to the end of the Match. Or, if it means that the Defender can only sail two AC75's against each other from the time of the first scheduled race each day of the CSS. If the former then the Defender can run a condensed but adequate two-boat testing program.

If the latter then the Defence slope just got steeper.

On the positive side Emirates Team New Zealand are not constrained by the 100% Nationality Rule for the crew composition of the AC75 that will act as the trial horse, and a multi-national crew and helmsman can be used. But again whether a crew can be engaged that is up to the standard of the Super Teams is a serious issue for the Kiwis.

The America's Cup truism remains, that the strength of the Defender is only really as good that of their trial horse. Maybe the solution lies in the abundance of America's Cup talent across the Tasman.

Good sailing!

Richard Gladwell
NZ Editor

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