Is this the Tokyo Dome 1990 or is it Caesars Palace 1985? A sensational knockout by an underdog that everyone’s written off or a TKO with two evenly matched pound-for-pound sporting teams at the very top of their game and at the peak of their abilities? Whether its Buster Douglas knocking out Tyson or ‘Marvellous’ Marvin Hagler edging Thomas ‘The Hit Man’ Hearns is something we’ll only find out in a few short hours. Whatever way it goes, it’s going to be a fascinating contest and the pre-match build up between the undisputed heavyweight champions of the world in Team New Zealand, and the feisty Italian Stallions from Sicily in Luna Rossa built the narrative beautifully for what we have in store. As sailing fans, as sports fans, it’s a mighty contest with more permutations than a work of fiction. You quite simply couldn’t make up this contest. It’s the America’s Cup of America’s Cups.
What’s absolutely clear is that Luna Rossa are here in Auckland to win the America’s Cup. The crescendo of 20 years building the team, the marriages, the births, the champagne, the tears, the sheer hard work to get where they are today was eloquently put by Patrizio Bertelli zoomed in from Italy. How he would have loved to be there – surely if the win looks imminent, a private jet can be found and an exception made to the quarantine rules? In Max Sirena, the determination bubbled out of of every pore. They have left no stone unturned on the boat development – sails, foils, aero mods, systems – it’s a heck of a programme and as he said, they’ve sailed just 16 races. In mountaineering parlance, they are at the foot of the Matterhorn in terms of development and who’s to say they haven’t scaled slightly faster than their climbing rivals across the podium? The CO2 of money, dedication, design, innovation, team spirit and an iron will to win on the water with one of the greats of the Cup game steering on the starboard side is, on paper, a winning combination.
But just beyond the gleaming Cup, a few feet away sat a mighty obstacle. A sailor that shows a rare honesty in his endeavours and wears his heart on his emblem-laden shirt. We were treated to a masterclass performance of diffusion and understatement, as is his inimitable style, from Pete Burling. The Tiger Woods of his era, Pistol Pete packs a mean gunslinger’s dead eye, exuding the kind of confidence when you know your duelling partner has one bullet when you have two. It’s deep in the Kiwi psyche, we see it in Rugby Union and we’ve been treated to it since 1995 with New Zealand skippers that just know how to play this game. What is it in the water at Tauranga Sailing Club where the kids cut their teeth and produce superstars like Burling?
With the Cup on display, everything changes. It’s there. It’s close. It’s absolutely irresistible. Just being on that podium with it is a victory. The spoils are usually so much greater than the prize but with the Cup it demands a reverence and a respect. It cowers all in its presence, exuding a fatal charm like the Sirens in Homer’s Odyssey. Countless sums spent, this is what they came for. This is everything and for both teams they are just seven wins away from unadulterated, wild joy. Ticker tape parades, adulation untold. It’s the defining moment of lives, of hopes and dreams. The Cup is way beyond the normalcy of life.
Course A is the chosen venue with natural viewing galleries from Milford and Takapuna. It’s the one exposed to the North Easterlies with a chop but with the forecast at 12 knots it’s right on the margin, the transition almost, to where Luna Rossa believe they can compete. Team New Zealand, with their diddy ballerina foils will be dancing on the edge of the boundaries and I thought it telling that ‘tacking’ has been the simulator go-to behind the pre-start practice. My gut feeling is that tacking will decide this contest from the off and it’s too close to call in that respect. The outright speed rumours were also dispelled with Sirena confirming a top speed of 53.4 knots and Burling admitting that they hadn’t been above 57 knots. Physics usually wins and the dockside chatter of 60+ knots are just that. No wonder the Italians were mildly fuming at that one spreading like wildfire.
(Update – Course E has been selected and the wind has filled this afternoon so we could be starting in 12-15 knots. Perfect conditions.)
This is a sports contest. It always was. Psychology, design, speed and team-work will win. As we wind up to the Match of all Matches, it’s all to play for. Whoever wins will have earned it. Who’s done the hardest work and who’s about to scale the highest peak of sporting achievement? Just a few hours now until the world finds out which way this cookie will crumble. Brilliant. Electric. The America’s Cup is all on.