America’s Cup Team New Zealand favourites but Jimmy Spithill looms large for Luna Rossa

AUCKLAND, New Zealand — Two months of tactical posturing on Auckland’s picturesque Waitemata Harbour has eliminated two hopeful crews and millions in funding, leaving local favourites Team New Zealand and Italian syndicate Luna Rossa to contest the 36th America’s Cup.

The all-important first duel between defenders Team New Zealand and challenger of record Luna Rossa was originally scheduled for Saturday 6th March before being postponed after Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern sent Auckland back into another Level 3 lockdown – this time for seven days – which has thankfully now ended, with the crews taking to the water on Wednesday.

The latest COVID-19 related disruption possibly favours the Italians who are in the midst of making last-minute changes after flying in new sails and other equipment. With America’s Cup boats permitted to train under Level 3 conditions, but no spectators allowed on the water or shore, the delayed start gives the underdogs additional time to adjust.

In terms of advantages, the Italians are battle-hardened after their dual helmsman, Jimmy Spithill and Francesco Bruni, guided Luna Rossa through 18 races – the most of any AC75 syndicates.

The last of Team New Zealand’s six completed races comparatively took place on December 19, during the Christmas Cup regatta they won. In between times Team New Zealand made the most of practise by sailing the same courses as competitors straight after the Prada Cup races finished.

Yet when they reach the start line it will be some 80 days since Team New Zealand’s last competitive race, adding to the sense of unknown surrounding the first to seven series.

To earn the right to challenge Team New Zealand, Luna Rossa first dispatched the New York Yacht Club’s American Magic 4-0 in the Prada Cup semifinals.

While the Americans managed nothing short of a miraculous recovery after a disastrous capsize punctured a hole in the hull that almost sunk their yacht Patriot – only held afloat thanks to desperate support from rival teams – they proved no match for Luna Rossa. Four straight wins over two days pushed the Italians forward to meet Ben Ainslie’s previously-impressive Ineos Team UK.

Expected to be a competitive series, the Prada Cup final was instead another mismatch with Luna Rossa constantly improving on their way to claiming the best-of-13 series 7-1. Throughout that series Spithill and Bruni had Ainslie’s number to dominate the crucial starts, with boat speed then allowing the Italians to push out to commanding leads.

The subplot to the main event now centres on Australian Spithill, the chief protagonist and two-time America’s Cup winning skipper.

New Zealanders will never, ever, forget San Francisco in 2013 and Spithill masterminding one of the greatest sporting comebacks as he led Oracle Team USA to a miraculous cup win from a 1-8 deficit to triumph 9-8.

Spithill’s attitude is characterised by comments he made while seemingly down and out during that regatta.

“I think the question is: Imagine if these guys lost from here,” he said during the 2013 event. “What an upset that would be. I mean, they have almost got it in the bag. So that’s my motivation. You know, that would be one hell of a story, that would be one hell of a comeback, and it’s the kind of thing I would like to be a part of.”

As far as sporting heartbreak goes Team New Zealand’s capitulation ranks alongside the Black Caps’ cruel defeat to England in the 2019 One-Day Cricket World Cup final at Lord’s – a match that finished with a dramatic super over and, with the teams still tied, required the controversial boundary countback rule to determine a ‘winner’.

With New Zealand Olympic champion Peter Burling replacing Dean Barker at the helm, four years ago Team New Zealand extracted revenge over Spithill and Oracle Team USA in Bermuda with a 7-1 victory to bring the Cup to Auckland.

Hurt from that Bermuda defeat remains for Spithill. Yet no matter the odds, he exudes an air of swag.

“First of all, you couldn’t help but respect and admire what Team New Zealand had done,” Spithill said of Bermuda. “You look at San Francisco and that was brutal, the way that loss went.

“The fact they were able to regroup, pull themselves together, come back and run a campaign like that – and it was a perfect campaign, they didn’t get anything wrong – you couldn’t help but admire that and respect it. For me … it’s hard to put into words … but mostly you’d just let everyone down, that was the feeling.”

Spithill, having since jumped ship to Luna Rossa, is well aware Team New Zealand start warm favourites to retain the Cup but it’s challenges such as these he strives to grasp.

“This is what we live for, this is what we’ve been working so hard for year-after-year,” the 41-year-old said. “Being based in Cagliari, it’s been a relentless campaign with everything that’s added on that we all didn’t expect.

“I can’t wait. Bring it on. These Kiwis are going to be tough, but that’s the great thing about sport – if it was easy, it wouldn’t be worth doing.”

Despite their lack of match racing Team New Zealand deserve their favouritism, however. They are sailing on home waters and in familiar conditions. As holders they determined the boats, stipulated the rules, and most believe they possess the faster vessel, Te Rehutai, particularly in the mid-to-high wind brackets.

In Burling Team New Zealand boast a highly skilled, successful, unflappable, physically strong skipper whose temperament has been compared to a fighter pilot. He, therefore, won’t allow Spithill to get under his skin.

“As an athlete you want the opportunity to test your skills against the best people in the world which we’ve really got here,” Burling said. “At the start of the challenger series we genuinely had no idea who it would be. All three of the teams put together amazing campaigns. For Luna Rossa to come out on top … we’ve got a worthy challenger.

“Already you can sense the intensity has risen yet another notch internally now we know we will be racing Luna Rossa and our complete and utter focus is now zeroed in knowing that we need to be better than them across the board.”

Secrecy surrounding Team New Zealand’s campaign – they recently trialled a large, traditional sail that will enable them to edge forward even when not on the foils – adding to the sense of intrigue.

A comfortable victory for the locals would not surprise but with Spithill guiding Luna Rossa, nothing is a given. Let the racing begin.

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