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Sir Russell Coutts is the new Dennis Conner

DUNCAN JOHNSTONE IN SAN FRANCISCO
Last updated 05:00 15/09/2013
Russell Coutts
Reuters
BIG BOSS: Oracle's Sir Russell Coutts.

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As Team New Zealand finally look set to emerge from the large, dark shadow of Sir Russell Coutts and reclaim the America's Cup, the polarising sailor has been described as the new Dennis Conner.

Conner epitomised the ugly American, a larger than life figure highly respected for his sailing skills but often despised for some of his off-the-water behaviour. He remains a legend of the America's Cup, having won it four times in a cup career from 1974 to 2003.

There will be no sweeter moment for Team New Zealand than completing their demolition of Oracle at the expense of Coutts, the American syndicate's chief executive who is also a four-time winner of the cup.

Acknowledged as New Zealand's greatest close-quarter yachtsman, he lost the respect of many the moment he left Team New Zealand in 2000 and returned as a Swiss sailor to steal the Auld Mug three years later. He got the better of the Kiwis again in the 2007 final before switching allegiances again to Oracle.

This latest rematch has been highly anticipated and it hasn't disappointed. Though Coutts hasn't been at the boat's helm, he has been overseeing an outfit in disarray, a position as foreign to him as defeat would be.

His first America's Cup loss looms and handing the cup over to Grant Dalton and Dean Barker would be the icing on the cake to many who have been enthralled by Aotearoa's dominance over a boat backed by Larry Ellison's millions.

Coutts' polarising position in New Zealand doesn't surprise some heavyweight figures in international yachting, but they see it as a positive for the America's Cup, with a history littered with controversial characters.

"The cup is full of people that are strong-willed and very focused. Dennis Conner was an extremely polarising character in his day and Russell has taken that mantle now," said Iain Murray, regatta director and an Australian whose long record in the cup includes losing the Auld Mug to Conner in 1987 in Perth.

"And there will be others ... Jimmy [Spithill] is a very [strong-willed] person in his own right as well ... so is Dean Barker and so is Grant Dalton. Their personalities get showcased and, inevitably, successful people rarely have 100 per cent following."

American Peter Isler has sailed five cup campaigns, including two successes as Conner's navigator. He chuckled at comparisons of Conner and Coutts and felt New Zealand's preoccupation with their former star was "healthy".

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"I think it's great that there is that sort of spirit and attitude," Isler said. "In New Zealand you get in a taxi at the airport and they want to talk about the America's Cup if they know you are a sailor.

"That sort of strong feeling, positive or negative, towards Russell for what he did is a sign of a healthy sport, to me.

"Russell is an international sports figure ... ultimately, what all of us expect of him as a sportsman is for him to do the best he can. That's what we want to see, no matter what country he is on."

The rebuild of Team New Zealand has been long and painful but the 2013 reincarnation could prove better than the original if the last phase of the mission can be accomplished.

Dalton has long lived in the shadow of his old round the world rival Sir Peter Blake. His initial survival instincts for Team New Zealand, based around a successful history of organising and finding funding for major projects, were commendable.

His ability to successfully transfer those into this space-age edition of the regatta has been nothing short of sensational.

Dalton found the right designers, filled the holes in a sailing crew whose background was in monohulls and kept himself at the pointy end of it. Dalton's ability to be involved on the boat has made a mockery of Coutts' resistance to sail on a boat clearly lacking direction. Team New Zealand look to have out-thought Oracle at their own game, no mean feat considering Ellison's mob set the rules and agenda.

And let's not forget the figure standing tall at the wheel of Aotearoa, helmeted head cocked, looking for the next decisive move. No-one has suffered more in the unfair comparisons to Coutts than Barker.

The moment Coutts handed Barker the wheel for that last race of the successful 2000 defence in Auckland, it was a shadow rather than a spotlight that fell on him.

This looks like Barker's moment. This looks like Dalton's moment. This looks like the Team New Zealand of now, an entity in their own right - at long last.

- Sunday News

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