Call the cops. Get forensics on the scene. Send in the flying squad. Because there’s a ruthless gang of pick-pockets operating in Auckland right now targeting foreigners, as they have been all summer, and this time they’re focusing on the Australian and Italian communities. The public should be warned, they are pouncing late in the day and picking on the vulnerable. Victims have described the lightning speed of the attacks and a rapid getaway in a muscle-car by a gang of seemingly gentleman assailants who politely smile as they exit the scene of the crime. Police have warned that they tend to tail the intended victim for some time before attacking and are urging those with a nervous disposition to stay indoors, remain vigil at all times and keep any silverware locked away.
The gang in question can be revealed as Team New Zealand, and after the most thrilling race of this fascinating America’s Cup Match, they sit at check just one victory away from retaining the Auld Mug. The manner of victory was crushing. Like a relentless Russian Chess Grandmaster playing Deep Blue to retain humanity’s upper-hand against technology, it was pure sailing brilliance that won the day. Luck? No. It was a masterful set up from a mile back by a team wearing the weight of expectation of an entire nation on their shoulders with such easy charm. Team New Zealand were a class apart, capable of pulling off the impossible against a tenacious Luna Rossa that brought everything to the table.
The sheer pressure the Kiwis applied all race was unbearable. This was sport beyond boundaries of possibilities by two teams at the apex of the game and for race fans around the world they didn’t disappoint. The scorecard flatters at 6-3 but deceives in terms of the grind to achieve it by the Kiwis. Francesco Bruni and Jimmy Spithill made it the match it was today, and all credit to them. They’re facing down a mighty force. A boat, in Te Rehutai, that is faster upwind by more than a knot and over two knots faster downwind. They have no right to even be within 500 metres of the Kiwis on paper but through sheer tactical sailing ability and nous, time and again they are proving the most unshakeable of challengers for this 36th edition of the America’s Cup.
In just over 10 knots of breeze, the two teams came to the start with Burling, to my eye, just edging the delta, starting a click faster down at the leeward end but crucially Spithill held the windward gauge in a shifting breeze out to the port boundary. It was desperately close but dancing the tightrope of height for position and soak for speed, Luna Rossa got its nose in front and just kept on hammering home its positional advantage. There was no speed to burn, it was all about racecraft and positioning with the Italians sailing magnificently to round out at the top mark on a split peel-off just a boatlength or two ahead.
Facing outright speed down the first run, the Italians played the shifts well and dialled into the pressure better than the Kiwis before putting a masterful match-racing move on Te Rehutai as the leeward gate approached. With Francesco Bruni, a mean match-racer on the circuit, steering on the port side, the Italians held out the rapid Kiwis beyond the gybe angle and in any other boat would have sailed them up the beach. In these machines it’s different and Spithill called the angle back into the mark to perfection whilst the Kiwis were forced into kamikaze gybe mode, just getting away with one of the hardest angle to angle gybes and almost a bronco, but conceding distance. A JK around the leeward gate put them further behind and now it was all about the Italians defending for their lives.
Time and again Team New Zealand asked the questions and for the next two legs, the Italians had the answers. Every opportunity to tack on their face or hold position downwind ahead, they took it. It was classic match-racing. The Kiwis were relentless though and set up for the final upwind, rounding the right hand gate to force a split whilst the Italians headed up on the left gate buoy and looked set to hold the right side on the final beat. It was a crucial match-racing error in allowing the split as the Kiwis had time and opportunity to really get the hammer down on the left hand side of the course and as the two boats converged, such was the travelling speed of Te Rehutai that a cover-tack was impossible for the Italians.
Team New Zealand crossed behind to hold the right hand side of the course and the starboard tack advantage and instead of covering to limit their losses after a further convergence that bounced Team New Zealand right, Luna Rossa made the call to carry on out left and effectively put their luck in the hands of the wind Gods that so far, have not been of Italian descent. A minute later and Spithill’s frustration was evident as an 18 degree shift, right where and when they didn’t want it, gave Team New Zealand the opening they had been patiently waiting and stalking for.
The Kiwis didn’t so much open the door as kick it down and all the Italians could do was watch as desperately close turned into devastating loss. The Kiwis were nearly 200 metres up in a blink of an eye with just the final runway to the finish to go. There was nothing Luna Rossa could do. 30 seconds was the winning delta and as a game of regrets goes, the Italians will find it hard to look back on that final beat in years to come. Fine margins decide sport. Split second decisions. This wasn’t the Italian’s finest hour. And with the second race abandoned as the gradient breeze fought to settle, tonight in Auckland there’s a respectful air of anticipation for a mid-week party.
“A setback paves the way for a comeback” according to Evander Holyfield, the champion boxer that made the mantra his own but it’s hard now to see how Luna Rossa can turn this around. There’s a sense of deflation and inevitability around the Italian camp. They are saying the right things but the sports psychology can’t hide the body language. Full credit to them, after the second race was abandoned, the team carried on practising and that’s the mark of this team – relentless dedication to time on the water driven by two skippers with an iron will to squeeze every ounce out of the opportunity. They are not rolling over. They are not playing dead. They are not seeking sympathy. Whilst there’s a mathematical chance of winning, they keep on going. It’s remarkable to see.
But at match point, everything is now pointing to the gentleman muggers who have held themselves so well throughout this regatta. Pete Burling, Blair Tuke, Glenn Ashby and Josh Junior have been a breath of fresh, youthful air – politeness personified on the podium. They are doing their nation proud with deep respect for their opponents and the competition and displaying utter brilliance on the water time and time again. It’s lovely to watch and they deserve all the plaudits they will rightly get if they can score just one more win. We’ve been here before though and everyone knows how hard the Italians, with Houdini himself on the helm, will fight but against a boat with such devastating boatspeed, it’s a tough ask.
‘Impossible is nothing’ are the words laid in marble so famously on the entrance hall to the Saatchi & Saatchi offices, but impossible is looking improbable now for Luna Rossa.