Team New Zealand will not only be up against perhaps the finest sailor, ever, when they go hunting the America's Cup in Bermuda.

Sir Russell Coutts, a man reviled as much as he is revered, could well be the greatest sports person this country has ever produced, if indeed such a category exists.

It's a bitter pill for the Coutts-naysayers to swallow, but when you stare at that record, collate what he has achieved both on and off the water, over such a long time, it's almost impossible to find anyone to compare.

Olympic gold medallist, world champion and cup regatta winner come tumbling out of his CV, like wasps out of a nest no doubt to those who still fume over his penchant for switching international camps, dealing to his country in the process.


His reputation, the stone cold assassin thing, means that his achievements just don't get the accolades they deserve.

But he is, in every sense, a sports genius. If Grant Dalton and the blooming prodigy Peter Burling - or any other team such as Sweden's Artemis Racing - can plot his demise, they will be true legends.

But for my landlubber's money, team boss Coutts is the reason why Oracle USA will prevail yet again because he is the man most likely to find order out of chaos. He doesn't do failure: every hiccup is a blip on the learning curve, another log on the competitive fires.

He is unbeatable in the America's Cup, and the reversal he engineered in San Francisco - one that too many New Zealanders sneered at - ranks among the most staggering comebacks in international sport.

While talking to a yachting luminary this week, I mentioned that some friends were fascinated with Oracle's helmsman Jimmy Spithill, in a sort of like-him-and-fear him way.

"All my friends are still obsessed with Russell Coutts," he replied.

Sir Edmund Hillary - who also competed for a foreign power - was long considered by many to be our greatest sports person. His remarkable achievements in extreme vertical hiking for a British force on the border of Tibet and Nepal left the world in awe, once it had got the telegram.

But the more you look at the Coutts record, the more you consider the astounding success he has had over nearly 40 years, the more the jaw drops.


Forget the tip. Five undefeated America's Cup campaigns is the iceberg heading Team New Zealand's way. The man is an assassin who happens to be a boating genius, from the board room to the water.

There was a lot of scurrilous innuendo fired Oracle's way in San Francisco, but what happened on the surface was a brilliant mid-game re-boot with his team focussed under intense pressure, their brains in top gear.

As for that famously ruthless personality streak, I gave up truly relying on trusting image a long time ago. Some of the dodgiest people I've met in sport had the best reputations with the public, and vice versa.

A British football journalist wrote about this dilemma, in reference to the former England footballer Rio Ferdinand, and the yarn went something like this.

Denied real access to leading players anymore, and relying on sound bites and scraps of news, many had formed and promulgated a negative view of the brilliant Manchester United defender. When they finally had time to talk to Ferdinand, at a dinner, they were left shocked by his warmth and wisdom.

In other words, I haven't got a clue what Russell Coutts the man is really like, and don't really care. He could be great company for all I know, and the squillionaire Olympic gold medallist and five time America's Cup victor happily holds junior clinics at places like Lake Wanaka which suggest there is a heart.

But come Bermuda, Coutts is definitely the shark. Some of the control freak stuff he's been up to is damned frustrating, especially the muzzle he has put on the opposing fleets in his role as event controller. It's anti-free speech, and not in the best interests of the cup drama itself.

It is, without doubt, in the interests of Russell Coutts and Oracle, removing the sort of distractions he will happily employ to upset opponents, most notably Grant Dalton and TNZ.

There's a thrilling soap opera about to unfold in Bermuda, where the new frontier of foiling means the actual racing has caught up to the blood-curdling controversy and skulduggery which has dogged and driven this famous contest for over a century.

It could be everyone's cup of tea, or much more so than when Sir Thomas Lipton became obsessed with winning the cup as a way of spruiking his grocery business a long time ago.

We've already seen what might be in store, with a frivolously apologetic British boat ramming Team New Zealand in practice.

Forthright personalities, win-at-all-costs characters, high technology, big money and a new era of knife edge racing may turn into a bar room brawl.

And this is what happens when R. Coutts is about. In a gunfight, everyone else blinks first. Coutts never seems to blink at all.