Dana Johannsen is the NZ Herald's chief sports reporter

Yachting: 'What the hell went wrong?'

Sir Russell Coutts and Grant Dalton. Photos / NZ Herald
Sir Russell Coutts and Grant Dalton. Photos / NZ Herald

"Mate, what the hell went wrong?"

That was all Team New Zealand boss Grant Dalton needed to say kick off a heated debate with Sir Russell Coutts when the two yachting adversaries squared off in a charity dinner last night.

The evening was in aid of veteran sailors Rick Dodson and David Barnes, who both suffer from multiple sclerosis and are aiming to attend the 2016 Paralympics.

Coutts got off to a rather tame start, opening with a video detailing Oracle's struggles and triumphs over the past 12 months.

Dalton chose another tack with his introductory video, playing an interview with Larry Ellison in 2010, in which the Oracle owner made all sorts of bold promises - most of which have not eventuated. The move hit a raw nerve with Coutts, who later leapt to the defence of his boss, warning "he'll get to hear about this".

In the video Ellison claimed there would be many as 16 challengers, with "more international teams than ever before" and pegged the cost of competing at just $2m-$4m.

He also promised the design rule would be simplified and the boats would be cheap to engineer - they would not be going back to the complex wingsail technology like that which was seen in Oracle's trimaran, which won the deed of gift challenge in 2010 - a point that was met with derisive laughter from the audience.

"Mate, what the hell went wrong?" Dalton asked when the video wrapped up.

Boldened by the effects of the sponsors wine, and clearly irritated by Dalton's continued references to promises made in 2010, Coutts returned to the stage later in the night and fired off a few salvoes of his own, including a pointed dig about the veteran's decision to add himself to the Team New Zealand crew.

"There's nobody in New Zealand he can find that's better than a 54-year-old?"

The supposed question time quickly became an audience with Coutts, as the Oracle chief executive ignored the questions from MC Peter Montgomery and instead tried to rebuke points made by Dalton in his opening address earlier in the evening.

He landed plenty of blows, but manipulated some rather murky statistics to do so, which surprisingly went unchallenged.

Coutts shrugged off criticism over the astronomical costs of competing with the claim that the budgets have only increased five per cent since the last multi-challenger regatta in Valencia in 2007. That still did not explain the $100m plus discrepancy between what was promised by Ellison and what has eventuated.

He also dismissed suggestions that organisers were struggling to attract the interest of broadcasters, despite the entire concept of the hi-tech AC72 class being driven by turning the America's Cup into a made-for-TV spectacular.

Coutts claims over 40 broadcasters have signed on to televise the racing, but with host broadcaster NBC not providing coverage of the Louis Vuitton challenger series until the elimination rounds, those deals are rather meaningless.

The one thing the pair could agree on was that the AC72 is an exciting class, and the racing on San Francisco Bay later this year promises to be thrilling.

But as Dalton quips - "they're expensive, we'll never see them again, so enjoy it".

- NZ Herald

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