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Sweet As!

You can take the aggressive, defending America's Cup helmsman off the boat, but you can't take the fight out of the crew.

Team New Zealand wrapped up its second straight 5-0 Cup victory today with a 48-second victory over Italy's Prada Challenge. The win capped another dominant performance for Team New Zealand -- a performance many thought it couldn't pull off in such an emphatic manner.

"This is a fantastic day," said skipper Russell Coutts. "Tonight's a night to celebrate what we've done."

What they've done is dismantle with surgical precision another opponent in the Cup Match. Team New Zealand won the Auld Mug with a 5-0 victory in the 1995 Match over Team Dennis Conner. Now Team New Zealand has defended it by steamrolling over Prada and extending its unbeaten streak to 10 races, something no one expected before the series started.

Team New Zealand led at all 25 mark roundings this year, and now has led at 50 straight mark roundings. Its average winning margin was a robust 1:39, less than the nearly three-minute average margin of victory off San Diego. It lost 2:14 on 10 of the 30 legs. In '95, it lost 54 seconds on four of 30 legs.

"We didn't know what to expect from the challenger," said Coutts. "I was nervous before Race 1. I was very concerned and worried about Prada. I didn't think it would be five-nil. I'd like to say it was the crew that made the difference, but it was a bit of everything."

Prada skipper Francesco de Angelis was gentlemanly in defeat, even if he looked punch-drunk from the events that transpired the last 13 days.

"Congratulations to Russell Coutts and Team New Zealand; they did a great job on the water," said the glassy-eyed de Angelis. "It was a well-deserved win. They give us a long list of things to work on in the future."

The future is something Prada, representing the Yacht Club Punta Ala, is looking forward to. As Luna Rossa crossed the finish line, the Yacht Club Punta Ala filed the "hip-pocket" challenge that sets in motion the events for the 31st Cup Match.

Team New Zealand will attempt to defend the Cup a second time in three years. The challenger series is expected to start in the 2002 Southern Hemisphere spring.

When asked if he would challenge again, Prada chairman Patrizio Bertrelli simply replied, "Yes."

Prada came into the Match riding a wave of euphoria. The first-time Italian challenger advanced to the Match after winning a hard-fought Louis Vuitton Cup final 5-4 over Paul Cayard's AmericaOne challenge. It displayed abundant confidence by forsaking match racing's rules of thumb, such as covering, for fluid tactics that placed a premium on finding the wind shift.

That strategy failed in the Cup Match, as Team New Zealand's match-racing masters steamrolled Prada from the Race 1 five-minute gun. The Italians also seemed drained of the flair and confidence that existed in the LVC finals.

"It's possible," said de Angelis. "This was invaluable experience for us. The first time we match-raced big boats was the Mini Cup in 1998."

Dean Barker also gained invaluable experience. Coutts' 26-year-old understudy replaced him at the helm of New Zealand in a decision made this morning.

"It was very difficult," said Barker. "Team New Zealand was rolling after four wins. Everyone wanted to finish it off today. It's hard to find the words to explain the feeling. I was very nervous."

Barker's nervousness wasn't apparent in the pre-start. He did a masterful job controlling de Angelis and allaying the fears of some team supporters who fretted that Barker wouldn't be able to match Coutts' aggressiveness. Reports out of the Team NZ camp say that Barker had the measure of Coutts in practice racing, and that seemed apparent today.

Barker positioned New Zealand to block Luna Rossa from getting to the right of the start box. Then, to demoralise the Italians, Barker made a covering tack to port with 30 seconds to the start, forcing Prada to sail in disturbed air and follow Team New Zealand across the start line 12 seconds in arrears.

With the wind blowing up to 18 knots from the south/southeast, the first beat was lively. Prada, anticipating a right-hand wind shift, fought to get to the right of Team New Zealand. A tacking duel saw Prada make small gains but never get full control of the right, and Team New Zealand led by 12 seconds at the windward mark.

Both boats did bear-away sets to full-size spinnakers beginning the first run. Prada tucked itself in behind Team New Zealand and slowly chipped away at its advantage. By the time they completed the three-mile leg, Prada had cut two seconds out of the Kiwis' lead.

On the second beat, however, Team New Zealand added 25 seconds to its lead and the writing was on the wall. The black boat pushed the lead to 1:13 beginning the run to the finish, before settling for the 48-second win.

Although this was the smallest delta of the series, it was too little too late for the Prada Challenge, which could only sit and watch Team New Zealand celebrate late into the night.

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