Paul Lewis on sport

Paul Lewis is the Herald on Sunday's Sport Editor

Paul Lewis: Blame race 13, not lay day

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Grant Dalton and Dean Barker are working together more closely than ever. Photo / Getty Images
Grant Dalton and Dean Barker are working together more closely than ever. Photo / Getty Images

As the old Mark Twain saying had it, "Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated", so reports this week of a major rift between America's Cup yachtsmen Dean Barker and syndicate boss Grant Dalton were off the mark.

Such a perception was understandable. Team New Zealand - and Barker - did not handle a searching interview from Paul Henry well. Machine gun questions, sometimes cutting off answers and Barker's hesitant, uncomfortable style made it look as though he had something to hide and was reluctantly throwing Dalton under the bus. It was made worse by Team NZ later rescinding Barker's contention that Dalton alone had made the decision to accommodate the lay day request - and then declining to comment further.

Again, it looked like they had something to hide - like dissension or, as Henry gleefully glommed to the camera, "hidden tension" within the team that led to "crucial mistakes".

So what's the reality?

Dalton had already admitted last month the lay day was a mistake, although that made no ripples then as there was no suggestion of non-consultation. The team itself - and Dalton and Barker - have already moved into a new management structure which means any future decisions like that are unlikely to be made in isolation. That's it. No falling out. No pistols at dawn though Dalton will not have been amused in Europe, as he drums up sponsorship for the next Cup, to find such focus on the shortcomings of the last one.

It happened because the interview turned into an autopsy of blame by Henry. Barker was fronting as part of his new role; more hands-on in team administration in a flattened management structure involving Dalton, COO Kevin Shoebridge, designer Nick Holroyd and sailor Glenn Ashby.

What we saw was Barker moving tentatively in his squeaky new management shoes. He answered Henry's probing questions with hesitancy, looking as if secret information was being prised out of him. Team New Zealand had those robust questions and answers months ago, as anyone would after such a harrowing defeat.

This writer's respect for Barker moved higher when he underwent, without complaint and with a great deal of dignity, the usual trial by media at the end of an emotional and draining Cup defeat. But authority is needed sometimes and maybe some media training is called for when the unblinking eye of television and an aggressive interviewer is involved.

Anyone who thinks Dalton and Barker are at odds is sadly mistaken. They are close; their careers intertwined. But the old lion is moving aside at least a little to give the young lion room. It is a natural progression, replicated among executive teams in companies up and down the land.

That was prefaced last month in the Herald on Sunday ('Barker may stand down', January 19) which looked at how the new structure permitted Barker to take on a skipper-cum-sailing director role and a chance (of which Barker himself will be one of the judges) for wunderkind Peter Burling to sail the America's Cup boat. Barker would head the sailing team shoreside - though there is still an extremely strong chance that he will still be driving the boat in 2017.

Barker was on holiday and wasn't at that announcement, just as Dalton was overseas and didn't front Henry. The unfortunate effect, perhaps exaggerated by Barker's hesitant style under heavy questioning, was to suggest to some that these two were at odds. In fact, they are probably working together even more closely than before.

Now for the other three questions - did the lay day decision cost ETNZ the Cup; should a sport, any sport, be so committed to looking after sponsors that they don't win the thing they are being sponsored to win; and should 56-year-old Dalton have given way as grinder to a younger, bigger man?

There is no answer to the first question; we just don't know. Maybe, maybe not. As for sponsors, they are part of professional sport. Look at the All Blacks - they are trying to arrange a test match against the United States in the US. The All Blacks don't need yet another test, US rugby is struggling to get its best players, New Zealand fans are indifferent and the US barely knows it's a possibility. Why is this happening? Sponsors - AIG want recognition in their biggest market.

Imagine the uproar if, at such a match, Richie McCaw, Kieran Read and Dan Carter were all injured, missing the World Cup. Not likely but you get the point. He who pays the piper calls the tune; it has been ever thus and ever will be.

Oracle won the Cup because they developed the fastest boat over the whole period of competition, not just the lay day in question. Jimmy Spithill can crack on about how hard they trained but that's a red herring; the fastest boat is the fastest boat.

Same answer re Dalton: the Cup wasn't lost because of grinder selection. The other boat was faster. Oracle also had no sponsors to keep in trim, thanks to Uncle Larry's billions. They could just focus on development.

The lay day was not as important as race 13, on September 21. Remember? Nine knots of wind and up to 20 knots of boatspeed - and the race was called off. Because of the comparatively light winds, the sleek, speedy catamarans became great wallowing sausages at times.

They couldn't finish the race in the allotted 40 minutes - a totally arbitrary time limit, configured not with anything to do with yachting in mind but rather the fact that US TV had a window of 40 minutes. If it didn't finish in time for TV, it didn't finish. At the time, Team NZ were almost a kilometre ahead, in nine knots of wind.

Of course Team NZ made errors. But if you want to stay focused on what went wrong rather than what's happening next time, try race 13 - there's no doubt about it.

- Herald on Sunday

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