Dana Johannsen on sport

Dana Johannsen is a Herald sport writer

Dana Johannsen: Underwhelming so far, the Cup may yet surprise

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Tom Cruise, Emirates Team New Zealand's guest.
Tom Cruise, Emirates Team New Zealand's guest.

It says a lot about this year's America's Cup that the biggest story of the racing so far has been a guest appearance by Tom Cruise.

The pictures of the A-list actor, decked out in his Top Gun aviators, getting into his work with the Team New Zealand crew this week sparked more interest in the event than anything that has happened in the previous four weeks of racing.

While enthusiasts have marvelled at the speeds the high-powered AC72 catamarans are capable of, and the skill and precision involved in pulling off foil-to-foil gybes, the reality is the uninspiring procession of one-sided contests (figuratively and literally) has done little to grab the attention of mainstream sports fans. Enter Cruise. Accustomed to playing the role of Hollywood hero, Cruise single-handedly rescued the Louis Vuitton round robin from crashing and burning completely.

But there's no doubt the regatta hasn't reached the heady heights that had been promised. It's now come to a point where we're all sitting around waiting for the main event to happen.

Even Team NZ seemingly can't be bothered with the challenger series any more.

They withdrew from their final round robin match-up against Artemis - so effectively themselves - instead opting to put their boat back in the shed early to undergo modifications. As the top-placed team they also had the option of choosing to advance directly to the final of the Louis Vuitton Cup or taking part in the semifinals, which would allow them further racing practice. But with the other two teams unable to offer them adequate competition, Team NZ's focus at this stage is on developing their boat ahead of what seems an inevitable meeting with Oracle in the America's Cup final.

As underwhelming as the challenger series has been, the early indications are the America's Cup may just over-deliver.

When the AC72 class rule was first introduced, conventional wisdom was the racing was unlikely to be close. History has shown that whenever a new class of yacht is introduced there is always a bolter - one team comes up with a break-through development that blows the other out of the water. Over each ensuing Cup cycle the boats tended to get closer together in terms of speed as the designers and sailors get a better understanding of the class. But the experts have changed their tune on this in recent weeks, with many tipping the Cup defenders and Team NZ will be very evenly matched.

The unexpected manoeuvrability of the giant catamarans has also led to optimism that we could yet see a proper match race in these boats. It was thought the decision to go with high-powered speed machines would reduce the event to a drag race, where the boats split off on different sides of the course. But the way Team NZ have been throwing their boat around in their round robin matches - albeit against no opposition - would suggest they are ready to match-race.

Dean Barker may just get to play the role of Maverick yet.

- NZ Herald

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