It’s a rivalry that defines, divides and decides eras. New Zealand versus Australia. The two antipodean close neighbours who love to hate each other at play with the most intense rivalry anywhere in world sport. That rivalry or as the Maori language translates as ‘taupatupatu’ is about to be re-ignited in the Cup but there are many other thrilling examples written in the annals of sporting history to uncover – too many to mention.
Just about the finest game of rugby I ever witnessed, apart from the obvious one as an England fan, was back in 2000 at the Stadium Australia in Sydney before a scintillating record crowd of 109,874. It was then, and still is now, hailed as one of the greatest matches of all time. The All Blacks came out firing. The opening six minutes saw three converted tries as the likes of Lomu, Marshall, Mehrtens, Cullen, Umaga and Ieremia – the dream team – went to work on a stunned Australia who barely touched the ball. It’s the best opening passage of play ever seen in world rugby but the drama that unfolded thereafter remains legendary. Australia somehow clawed their way back to 35-34 before Jonah Lomu crashed over in the last minute of the game to secure the All Black win. Breathtaking.
Now, sitting across Wynyard Wharf is another Aussie desperate to score a win on the Kiwis, this time for his Italian paymasters, poised to prise the America’s Cup from the clutches of the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron and stun the world in the process. Jimmy Spithill is the stuff of nightmares for opposing teams.
Competitiveness personified, he’s almost a forest tree reaching tall for sunlight in the canopy above. Like a cross between Jake La Motta and Wayne Shelford with the intensity of Michael Jordan he’s the king of the jungle in Cup circles with more pointed one-liners than Ali in his prime. If this were a psyche battle, Spithill wins…every time. He’s pure and simply: box-office. A promoter’s dream. But unlike in the Conner / Blackaller era where it truly was personal, this is pantomime and Jimmy is shadow boxing.
More’s the pity, for the modern-day sailors all know that the Cup is just a circus and that in a month’s time they will be back on the circuit, cameras and media gone, forcing everyone to swim along together. That’s professional sailing. Cups come and Cups go. A lot of fun whilst it lasts.
With the distance between events and the uncertainty around gainful employment at the behest of flighty billionaires rather than real sponsors that derive tangible benefit from their largesse, the chances of a proper circuit emerging with consistency are, at present, slim to none. The Cup is almost an aberration on the sailing landscape, an at times vulgar expression of wealth every four years that sees unimaginable fortunes squandered for little or no return.
It really has to change. It has to professionalise beyond where it is today. Grabbing the outstanding formula, exposed so thrillingly in the AC75 class, by the collar and selling it to the world is paramount. But we’ve all been saying this for decades and it’s one of those things far easier said than done. Historical idiosyncracies wrapped in the Deed of Gift would have to be discarded and therein lies the rub. But if it’s going to happen, then now is the best chance. These first generation platforms are extraordinary – all the elements are there. But will it? Tough to see. The world has changed.
But back to the rivalry. Facing down Spithill from the other side of the harbour but almost from another era is one of the shrewdest characters in the sport. Pete Burling lets his medals and his sailing brilliance do the talking in a straight-up fashion that appeals to young and old alike. The housewives favourite and the idol of the youngsters from Tutukaka to Howick, from Ngaroto to Taupo and Titahi. He’s bigger than Russell Coutts in his prime and that’s saying something. In Bermuda the Aussie tried to rile him and get under his skin but day after day, the Kiwi was nonchalantly relentless. The scoreboard just ticked over and the resultant 8-1 scoreline explained a thrashing. The shadow boxer punched himself out.
Burling is sublime on the podium and quick to face down controversy. When Ben Ainslie had a pop about the Foil Cant System, Burling just retorted with; “there’s a feeling that we’re somehow withholding information, but if you need to know anything just sing out.” And although the story was a bit different a few minutes later when the team management got involved, Burling had defused the upset and out of his depth Brit before going on to lap him later in the most embarrassing race of the Christmas regatta. That’s classic Burling and as nemeses go, he’s Rhamnousia enacting retribution against those who succumb to hubris before the Gods in Ancient Greece.
But what impresses me so much about this Team New Zealand campaign is that despite doing it on a relative shoestring, all round they’ve still managed to come out with both a design that is innovation personified and a team utterly committed to the task. They wear the silver fern with pride. To the Maori, the elegant shape of the fronds stand for strength, stubborn resistance, and enduring power. Team New Zealand seem to capture that in every campaign win or lose, and under the Burling reign it’s a relentless winning formula.
With rumours of top speeds hitting an incredible 62 knots on Te Rehutai, there aren’t enough words in Spithill’s lexicon to unsettle the Kiwis but this is sport – and strange things happen in sport. On paper it’s a 7-0 whitewash to the Kiwis, a horizon job, and the Cup either trips off to foreign lands for the mega-dollars or stays in Auckland for another thoroughly entertaining hurrah hopefully in 2023. But I know people who understand both the nature of sport and the human psyche who think this is going the way of the Italians and to hell with the data and the informed commentary. And who’s to say they’re wrong?
Let’s not forget Buster Douglas beat Mike Tyson and no-one, but no-one gave him a chance in hell. Leicester City won the Premier League. Boris Becker won Wimbledon at 17. Greece won the Euros. The USA beat the Soviet Union at Ice Hockey in 1980. And the helmsman of Luna Rossa beat Team New Zealand from match point 8-1 down to win 9-8 in San Francisco Bay.
Miracles do happen. Upsets occur. And in this strangest of years for so many reasons, is 2021 about to serve up another curveball?
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