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Barker to Skipper Kiwis' Quest for Repeat

Russell Coutts always said this would happen, but no one believed it would happen on the day Team New Zealand, representing the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron, can wrap up its second straight 5-0 America's Cup victory.

Dean Barker will replace Coutts today at the helm of New Zealand in what could be the deciding race of the 30th America's Cup. Team NZ leads Italy's Prada Challenge 4-0 in the best-of-nine match and needs just one more win to duplicate their 1995 winning scoreline.

Rumours have swirled throughout the Match that Barker, 26, would replace Coutts, 38, for one race. "I have tremendous respect for his ability, but it's not easy stepping into a situation like that," Coutts said last night. "I've been in that situation before, in 1992, and it's not easy."

Coutts took the helm of the New Zealand Challenge in 1992 as it floundered in the waning days of the Louis Vuitton Cup finals. Coutts stepped into a no-win situation when he replaced Rod Davis (now the Prada coach) midway through the series as New Zealand fell to a 5-3 loss from a 4-1 lead.

Letting Barker helm today, however, places the former youth world champion under tremendous pressure. Auckland was buzzing early this morning as Team New Zealand fans flooded the waterfront, looking for rides to the racecourse to watch their beloved sailing team defend the Cup. If Barker were to lose to Prada, it could crush his confidence.

But Coutts has confidence in his protégé, who climbed to No. 5 on the world match-race rankings last year. Coutts wants to see the series end today. "I'm worried about being complacent. We need to finish them off," he said.

There are also some other changes to the line-up. Chris Ward replaces Andrew Taylor as the starboard-side grinder, while Craig Monk returns to his port-side role. Robbie Naismith replaces Grant Loretz as downwind trimmer, and Mike Drummond replaces Tom Schnackenberg as the navigator.

In allowing Barker to helm, Coutts puts aside his own position in history. He stood on the precipice of recording the most consecutive Cup Match victories without a loss. Yesterday's win tied him at nine with Charlier Barr for the most wins. Barr skippered three 3-0 winners between 1899 and 1903.

Prada skipper Francesco de Angelis and his crew will attempt to derail the New Zealand locomotive, which won't be easy considering they have to watch their back in-house. Following yesterday's 1:49 loss, syndicate chairman Patrizio Bertelli issued a scathing assessment of his crew's decisions yesterday, calling the tactics "suicidal."

"[Team New Zealand is] a strong team and they are sailing well, they have a good boat," Prada skipper Francesco de Angelis said yesterday. "We just have to try to do our best until the end of the races."

Their best may not be enough. Team New Zealand is rolling. What's scary to think is that this team doesn't even know the full potential of its boat New Zealand, NZL-60. They're satisfied that it performs well in the lower ranges, as evidenced by yesterday's solid win in six- to seven-knot winds which were a perceived Achilles Heel.

"We were pleased to find that the boat is competitive [in light winds], so that answers the question that remained in our minds," said navigator Tom Schnackenberg. "If [today's] conditions are only moderate then we will actually finish the regatta without really knowing how we would go against Luna Rossa in strong winds."

Today they may find out that potential. A low just north of Cape Reinga (top of the North Island) is expected to slide southeastwards to lie north of East Cape at midnight. Winds are expected to initially blow from the southeast before shifting southwest during the afternoon. The strength is predicted between 10 and 20 knots all day.


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