It's New Zealand v Alinghi

The bigger they are, the harder they fall – and Luna Rossa went down hard.

The final scoreline of 5-0 didn’t seem to reflect the difference between the teams. But today’s race just served notice once again that in match racing, in these boats, the tiniest edge can be turned into a sweep, as ETNZ converted the slimmest of advantages at the first cross into a 20 second lead that they held to the finish. And so, after four years and four months of relentless hard work, the Kiwis are back where they started – they have to beat Alinghi five times to win the America’s Cup.

It started with Dean Barker and the ETNZ trimmers pulling off a brilliant move to get out of the left-hand side of the dial-up – they got themselves both separated and far enough back to flop onto port and swing their bow round behind the transom of Luna Rossa. The Italians were left with no option but to circle round and follow them out to the right-hand side of the box.

But when Dean Barker turned back towards the line, Jimmy Spithill was able to take the right as both boats set up on starboard for the final approach. Luna Rossa had to push ETNZ down the line a bit to create some space at the committee boat, Dean Barker working hard to keep it pretty tight-to-leeward at the gun. With an almost dead even start, Luna Rossa lived for that crucial minute off the line, before tacking away. ETNZ followed almost immediately, and once they’d both settled, the Kiwis appeared to have a narrow advantage. It wasn’t obvious where this came from as they looked even off the line - perhaps a little left shift, a bit of pressure, another slightly better tack and acceleration from the New Zealanders…

It was important, because we now settled into a replica of the race one drag out towards the starboard tack layline – this time with Luna Rossa to leeward. They were gaining steadily all the way, but not quite enough to make up that narrow Kiwi edge. And so, finally, with the layline coming up, Luna Rossa’s tactician, Torben Grael decided it looked as good as it was going to get, they tacked, and we got a first cross.

The Kiwis tacked leebow and both boats settled onto starboard – this was the one that would settle the match. It was desperately close, and for a long while Luna Rossa looked like she could hold in the windward position and control the match. But finally, they started to slip into ETNZ. Torben Grael did the right thing and tacked away immediately it started to look bad, but there were no further chances. The Kiwis had control, and Luna Rossa had to wait for ETNZ to tack back onto starboard, well over the layline, and then follow them into the mark. Luna Rossa rounded 20s behind – just like yesterday.

But the rest of the race was nothing like yesterday - Luna Rossa did a great job of keeping it tight. A dummy gybe on the first run allowed them to get into the right-hand side, where there seemed to be a little better pressure and they were able to close up… only to see the Kiwis squeeze back out just before the gate to keep the gap at 20 seconds. It was the same story up the beat, as first the better breeze was on the left with the Italians, they came into the Kiwis, and then it switched to the right and the Kiwis eased away again.

The delta was identical at the next windward mark at 20 seconds. But the Italians showed no signs of going meekly, gybing off to the left and finding that streak of better pressure that had helped them on the beat. Once again they reeled the Kiwis in, the distance down to a couple of boat lengths as ETNZ closed on the line. There was a last, desperate effort from Luna Rossa to get on the Kiwi’s air as they gybed ahead and to leeward just before the line, but ETNZ always had enough to stay in front.

It was a much better performance from Luna Rossa, and doubtless people will wonder if whatever change they made to the boat last night also made the difference. Or was there never much in it anyway - as all the sailors were claiming - and today the Italians just found themselves in the right bit of water a bit more of them time? I suspect that only they really know that, and they are the ones it matters to - because the Kiwis go on, and Luna Rossa are left to debrief and pack up. The Italian boat never quite found that tiny bit extra that they needed, and an almost faultless display from the Kiwis ruthlessly converted every opportunity into a win. The scoreline didn’t do the Italian boat anything like justice, but then, does it ever...

Emirates TNZ have seventeen days to chill out – which they were doing, the ‘game face’ was gone and Grant Dalton was last seen pouring champagne all over Dean Barker – and then to start getting their heads round the fact that the job isn’t finished yet, as they know only too well. The Kiwi audience will accept nothing less than the Cup ‘coming home’ - this is the fourth straight Match that New Zealand have been in. The date for your diary is the 23rd June - it’s going to be compelling, even if it’s only for the first leg of the first race...

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Mark Chisnell ©