With just hours to go, can Oracle Racing defend the Cup? Clues from the skippers’ press conference

The opening press conference is a crucial event in any Cup programme. Aside from the usual competitive tensions between the two teams and the nervous energy that builds around the event in the final few days, the 34th America’s Cup starts from an unprecedented position. The Defender, having been found guilty of cheating, starts the event with a two point deficit and loses one of its key crew members. The latter, along with the $250,000 fine, the team can deal with. Even the points loss does little to change the competitive starting point other than to either lengthen or shorten the Match. But the shame and embarrassment of being found guilty is not so easily dismissed. Little surprise then, that Oracle Racing’s skipper James Spithill looked so stressed at this morning’s pre-match press conference.

Ashen faced and tense, his taught body language and fixed focus matched the tough talk that came with almost every answer. From the familiar mantra of having a strong team, with stacks of talent on and off the boat, to the acknowledgement of a dedicated and fired up shore team without whom success wouldn’t be possible, his answers followed a familiar line. But signs of the tension that is running through the team started to show when he was pressed on how he and the team felt about the cheating charge.

“I’m shocked by the jury decision,” he said. “But frankly I’ve moved on from it. There’s nothing I can do today to change the decision. We’ve got one thing to focus on and that’s the racing this weekend. I can tell you that for myself, John Kostecki and the sailing team, the only thing we’re thinking about is racing these guys [Team New Zealand].”

Did he now feel like the underdog?

“We only found out four days before the America’s Cup who our race team could be. We lost one of our key guys, we’re starting Saturday two races behind so I don’t think we’re the favourite going into Saturday when you think about that. Yes, I think we’re the underdog.”

How about being portrayed as the villains of the Cup?

“Whenever you’re the Defender there’s always a target on your back. The Defenders get together and their goal is simple, they want to knock you out and get this trophy. The fact is that no matter what happens on the shore, to take that trophy you have to win on the water and that’s what we’re looking towards.”

On the face of it, good solid answers from a skipper that leads from the front and has channelled his frustration, (and possibly anger), at the recent turn of events into a fiery determination to win.

But that’s where I start to worry. Within every answer it seemed there was a return to talk of the ‘tough team’, ‘fired up shore crew’, ‘excited to go racing’ mantra no matter what the question was. Overly tough talk often betrays a tension behind the scenes and it is difficult not to think of the overnight meltdown that destroyed Oracle in 2007. I’d argue that then like now they had the most sophisticated boats, the world’s top crews and the most lavish toy box on the dock. But behind the scenes the tension and expectations were so high that when things started to go wrong the wheels came off completely.

If nothing else but for the sake of the event, I sincerely hope this isn’t the case, more than ever before we all want to see the kind of good close racing that has eluded the Cup so far, but recent events have certainly piled on the pressure. If you believe the dockside chatter, the home team has managed to swing from being popular local heroes to the opposite extreme. Losing the support of the home crowd would dent any team’s morale.

Meanwhile to Spithill’s left, Kiwi skipper Dean Barker looked cool, relaxed and at ease with the pressure. Sure, he’s well known for his quiet nature, the difference between stress and elation is often difficult to establish from his appearance alone. But Barker knew that he would not be in the firing line during this press conference. He knew that the main thorny questions would be put to Spithill and that his biggest issue was he might be asked to comment on the Oracle situation. He was, and for a moment we thought he might seize the opportunity to start a few fireworks.

Did he feel for the pressure that Oracle Racing is under?

“It’s a circumstance that they’ve found themselves in through something that their team has done,” he said with a hint of an apologetic sigh. “The timing is what it is for those guys. They’re good enough and old enough to be able to deal with it.”

Something about his manner, his slight hesitation in answering suggested he wanted to go further, but Barker is diplomatic and held back. Had Grant Dalton (Emirates Team New Zealand) and Russell Coutts (Oracle Racing) been on the stage I think sparks could well have flown.

The questioning then took a diversion into the more usual business of tactics and what it meant to be competing and in doing so eased the pressure valve a little.

But by the end of the conference and the photo shoot that followed, it was Spithill who was desperate to get off the stage as quickly as possible, even before the full shoot had finished. Little details perhaps, open to mis-interpretation perhaps too, but in the Cup, small details can make big differences on and off the water.

Fazed or focussed? On Saturday we’ll have our first hint of an answer.

Watch for yourself
AC34 – Skippers’ Press Conference