Wednesday, 23 May 2007

Frowning into the Finals

So it’s farewell to Desafio Espanol after the Kiwis romped away to a 500-metre victory, on a lumpy playing field that bore more resemblance to the Hauraki Gulf on a rough day than the more serene conditions we tend to associate with the Mediterranean.

As you watched the body language of the two teams when they crossed the line 1 minute 18 seconds apart, you could have been forgiven for thinking that it was the Spanish and not the laconic Kiwis who had won the day. There was not even a flicker of emotion as the New Zealanders booked their ticket into the Louis Vuitton Cup finals. Not that the Spanish were anything like as exuberant as on previous days, but there was still plenty of hugging and handshaking going on between the crew whose regatta had come to a sad but happy end.

The thing is, the Kiwis aren’t in the entertainment business. The only form of entertainment appreciated by their demanding fans back home, is winning. Shows of exuberance seem to be interpreted as signs of weakness. When a question went up to Terry Hutchinson on the stage in the press conference about the lack of Kiwi emotion, Dean Barker sitting two seats away from me let off a ‘harrumph’, as if to say, ‘what sort of question is that?’

Hutchinson, an American who has learned to curb his own emotions when sailing with the taciturn Kiwis, said the lack of visible emotion was down to “a sense of relief. I think the Spanish team was a very dangerous team for us to pick. We were always prepared for a full nine-race series, so it’s a sense of relief. We try to be as flatliner as we can be with a win or a loss. The feeling was much the same as it was when we crossed the line behind the Spanish three days ago. Don’t expect us to do any cartwheels, because that’s just how we are.”

Hutchinson looked drained up on stage, and admitted as much. “I haven’t slept in about six weeks. It might be the nature of the beast when you’re standing there looking at potholes of wind and wondering how you’re going to get past them next time.”

He also revealed some of the Kiwis’ reaction to the shock dismissal of BMW Oracle from the competition a few days earlier. Asked whether or not the Kiwis had picked the right Semi Final opponents in the Spanish, Hutchinson caused a bit of a stir in the audience when he answered: “If you had have known how the whole thing was going to play out [ie BMW Oracle going down 5-1], I don’t think we did. I think when you looked at it on paper and our past results against the Spanish team, we chose what we thought was the right thing for us. We were fully expecting to be punched a couple of times and get knocked down a couple of times and knew that we were going to have to get back up from it.”

So, what did he think went wrong with the American team’s surprise demise? “That’s a tough one, it’s hard to know the dynamics within the team. For sure Luna Rossa raised their game and statistically when you look at the Round Robins, the first cross percentage and leads at the top marks, BMW Oracle was further down that list than you would have expected. It was interesting to see Luna Rossa get stronger and sail better, but you also have to question if BMW raised their game to match Luna Rossa. The scorecard would suggest they didn’t. It certainly wasn’t what any of us were expecting to see.”

Asked afterwards about the difference in team dynamics between the Kiwis and BMW Oracle (which had just as many New Zealand passport holders on the boat as ETNZ), Hutchinson commented: “I think we have better team chemistry, it’s one of those intangibles, you can’t put a dollar figure on it, but it’s something you feel every day you go to work.” The sailors on NZL 92 may not smile much, but they’ve got team spirit in spades. And they’ll need it when they front up to the slippery Luna Rossa in a week’s time.

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