Team NZ confident Peter Burling can handle Jimmy Spithill on and off the water
Team New Zealand skipper Glenn Ashby is confident Jimmy Spithill won't get into the head of Peter Burling during the America's Cup match.
He believes Burling has the mental fortitude to withstand anything Spithill can throw at him on and off the water in what promises to be a long couple of weeks in Bermuda.
The opening two races of the 35th America's Cup match play out on Sunday. Two more are scheduled for Monday with the teams then taking a week's break before resuming their best of 13 race final next Sunday. Expect constant Spithill chatter throughout.
Ashby witnessed first-hand Spithill's relentless pursuit of former Team New Zealand skipper Dean Barker in San Francisco four years ago as his mental taunts wore down his Kiwi opposite during the course of a dramatic final where the defenders engineered their remarkable comeback from 8-1 down.
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Slowly but surely "Pitbull" Spithill backed up his barks with bites and by the end of it Barker couldn't even look his opposite in the eye and cast a stone-faced figure in front of the international media.
Burling, 26, is an America's Cup rookie facing a hard-nosed 37-year-old looking for a three-peat and willing to do anything to get over the line on the Great Sound.
Asked if Burling was up to the task of deflecting Spithill's barbs that are sure to grow louder as the match wears on, Ashby shot back: "Absolutely no doubt. Pete is a very level-headed character.
"He has done an excellent job fitting into this environment. He's the youngest helmsman by quite a long way compared to the other guys. But he is far more senior than his actual years."
Ashby felt the cool approach Burling portrayed at the wheel of Aotearoa reflected his general make-up. It was a strength of his unflappable character and would be the perfect foil to the inevitable brash talk of Australian Spithill.
Others agree. From Burling's mum Heather to Cup greats like Brad Butterworth and John Bertrand, the feeling is unanimous that Burling has the head space to handle what he has on his plate in terms of a volatile opponent.
Bertrand joined the chorus on Saturday when he said: "You see in Peter Burling that he's much more laid back … you're dealing with different characters. Can the Jimmy sort of aggressive stance have any influence on Peter? I don't know. But you're dealing with a very different style of person compared to Dean, in my observation at least. Time will tell."
Burling won't bite when it comes to Spithill's acidic tongue.
"We're more worried about how to make the boat go quicker, how to get around the track quicker. If you stop thinking about that, that's where you go wrong," Burling said, his mind on the assignment rather than the personalities involved.
Ashby, 39, likes the overhaul of the Team New Zealand crew that sees him the only survivor from the San Francisco heartache.
Burling and his mix of young Olympic stars carry no baggage from four years ago. This is their shot at history. They are young and fearless, focussing simply on a need for speed rather than the politics that engulf this regatta.
"That's a healthy thing," Ashby said.
"I'm the ony one that has probably got the battle scars on board. It's great to have young guys who are working hard. They're pushing hard, they have got a fantastic attitude to what we are taking on. It's pretty special really."
Ashby felt having Cup veterans in the background like coaches Ray Davies, Rod Davis and Murray Jones was proving crucial to keeping the youngsters grounded. The wise old heads had also been hugely influential during the lower moments that came with round-rboin losses to Oracle, the capsize and some tricky play-off scuffles with Britain and Sweden.
"We've got a great group with a lot of experience there," Ashby said. "But it is great to have those young guys come through that have the skills and the passion to push these boats hard."
Burling has looked increasingly comfortable at the top table in front of a growing international media presence. He has largely had to do that on his own and in an unusual position where he is a helmsman and not a skipper, unlike the dual roles of all his opponents in Bermuda over the past three weeks.
Burling has held his own against Spithill who has suggested he has a leak inside the Kiwi camp, has criticised Team New Zealand's tactical setup at the back of their boat and has also questioned their ability to handle pressure situations on the race course. What's next?
Ashby says they will be taking the aggressive Spithill on at his own game as this series unfolds. On the water, anyway.
"He will try everything and we will be countering that as well. We aren't going to be going out there with our tail between our legs. We are prepared for a good battle."