Brad Butterworth (L) and Grant Dalton. Photo / Getty Images.
Did you hear the one about Kiwi sailing legend Brad Butterworth joining Luna Rossa to help with “ground work” and liaise with national and local government?
If pugnacious Team New Zealand boss Grant Dalton
has a sense of humour – there’s got to be one in there somewhere – he would have had a good old laugh.
Luna Rossa’s ground work is getting more interesting by the day. Having just beaten Team New Zealand in an arbitration panel hearing, they are now floating claims – via their Instagram account – that “spies are everywhere…acting like tourists”.
The America’s Cup has always been a sporting contest like no other, full of interesting characters and bizarre arguments. You’ve got to love it for that. (And don’t discount the harbour-full-of-spies concept either).
Shortly after Butterworth had been appointed last month by the Italian challengers of record, an old salt with some solid America’s Cup knowledge told me to watch this space.
Butterworth’s mission, he claimed, would be to wind up Dalton and if possible, create tensions within Team New Zealand. And Butterworth, he added, knows exactly which buttons to push.
I can’t totally prove this theory, and I’m sure Butterworth’s role is not one dimensional, but last week’s events give it a lot of credence.
Luna Rossa are on a serious no-holds-barred mission this time, the theory goes. The one-time TNZ saviours are hell bent on winning the America’s Cup. The gloves are off.
It was a classic America’s Cup ding-dong, with any really technical bits largely lost on fans who ditch yachting for almost anything else between America’s Cup regattas.
Dalton got the recriminations in first, when he accused Luna Rossa of crimes against the spirit of the event because the Italians led a successful bid before an arbitration panel to have two inner harbour courses scrapped.
And Luna Rossa’s chief liaison officer Butterworth, perhaps laying some ground work, fired back by saying TNZ had been caught out in their efforts to gain an unfair tactical advantage.
We’re talking alpha males here, winners, leaders, with a lot of history thrown in.
There’s been a lot of water under the bridge between Butterworth and Dalton, and too much to list here.
But in 2008, a Sunday Star Times story reckoned: “After beating Team New Zealand in the America’s Cup final last year, (Alinghi skipper) Butterworth shook hands with every one of the NZL92’s crew – all except Dalton. Their loathing goes deeper than your average sporting rivalry.”
Dalton doesn’t seem to be a man who takes any criticism or put down lightly.
Luna Rossa principal Patrizio Bertelli would have known all of this. Dropping Brad Butterworth in the middle of the Auckland-based America’s Cup was like waving a handful of red rags at a tense bull.
For all of his incredible success in round the world and America’s Cup yachting, I suspect the surprisingly unknighted Dalton knows he has never quite found the public love and spotlight the way Sirs Peter Blake and Russell Coutts did.
And now Dalton has the shadow of the debonair Butterworth, a four times America’s Cup winner who has beaten TNZ in contests previously, hanging over him again, on his home territory.
But what’s the end game? Why try to wind Dalton up?
The guy is used to this, probably thrives off it, has never backed down, never blinked, never buckled, been more than willing to get into a scrap. Dalton re-established his command in emphatic fashion in Bermuda with a brilliant yacht and crew.
But you could also argue that Dalton took his eye off the ball in San Francisco, 2013, allowing the staggering Oracle comeback, and he could be persuaded to do so again.
And Team New Zealand is in an interesting stage of its evolution.
Their sailing stars Peter Burling and Blair Tuke have already outgrown the need to work under Dalton, confirming that situation by running their own team in Coutts’ SailGP.
It creates the opportunity for interesting dynamics within TNZ, along with questions about what happens next, after this campaign. If Butterworth can do anything to make Dalton feel his authority is being circumvented further, after the humiliation of having two courses bladed, it could get very interesting.
For this punter, personalities are at the heart of the America’s Cup allure, so last week’s battle was great stuff.
In some ways, I’ve grudgingly come to almost treasure that incredibly distinctive Dalton personality in a world full of PR guff. He is certainly one of life’s characters, although perhaps a little too self-obsessed.
And there are only so many interesting things to know about a foil before the brain wants to fly off at high speed.
Butterworth’s arrival was a sign – Real Game On.
The guess is that the two contentious harbour courses will be re-instated somehow. But I don’t believe course selection is what that ruckus was largely about last week.