'Pitbull' Spithill, Team NZ's nemesis, dogs hosts in America's Cup

Auckland (AFP) –


After snatching the America's Cup from Team New Zealand in humiliating fashion eight years ago, Australia's Jimmy Spithill is now plotting a smash-and-grab Italian job for the 'Auld Mug' in the Kiwis' own backyard.

Spithill, who co-helms Italian challenger Luna Rossa, has two America's Cup wins under his belt and is one of the few sailors whose credentials compare to Team NZ -- the benchmark performer recently in yachting's premier event.

In all likelihood, if there's one person the Kiwis do not want staring them down across Auckland's Waitemata Harbour during this week's America's Cup final, it's the pugnacious Sydneysider nicknamed 'Pitbull'.

Spithill concedes Team New Zealand are favourites in the best-of-13 final, likening the defending champions to rugby union's legendary All Blacks.

However, the 41-year-old tends to thrive against the odds and is relishing the prospect of a shock win.

"There's no doubt in my mind, we're the underdog," he said.

"But that's the great thing about sport, even as favoured as someone can be, it still doesn't mean it's a guarantee and a lock-in."

- 'Foot on the throat' -

Spithill engineered Team New Zealand's worst defeat when he led Oracle Team USA to victory in San Francisco in 2013.

The New Zealanders were 8-1, needing to win just one more race to seal victory.

At the time, the Australian helmsman was widely mocked when he declared: "It's not over. It's a long way from over."

Huge crowds anticipating a win gathered in Auckland wearing red socks, a lucky symbol for the late Peter Blake when he led New Zealand's first successful America's Cup campaign in 1995.

Kiwi media were earnestly examining the economic spin-offs of hosting the next regatta, and bookmakers suspended betting on a New Zealand victory.

Team New Zealand were so confident that the syndicate's ageing chief executive Grant Dalton appointed himself as an on-board crew member for a day, taking to the water like he was out for a Sunday afternoon cruise on a pleasure craft.

But the smiles faded as Spithill relentlessly hacked away at Team New Zealand's lead, taking just over a week to post a 9-8 victory.

The New Zealanders were labelled the greatest chokers in sporting history, while Spithill was named world sailor of the year.

The loss was all the more galling for Kiwis because Spithill hails from arch-rival Australia, with the Sydney Morning Herald rubbing salt into the wound as it praised "the Aussie who sank a nation".

In a sport where pre-race manoeuvres are often decisive, Spithill earned his 'Pitbull' nickname because of his unyielding aggression as yachts vie for position before the starting pistol fires.

The attitude was on display in Auckland as Luna Rossa defeated rivals American Magic 4-0 in the challenger series semi-finals, then Ineos Team UK 7-1 in the final.

"Let's keep the foot on the throat," he told teammates as the Italians dealt a death blow to American Magic's campaign.

Spithill today commands grudging respect among the New Zealand sporting public, but the host syndicate's helmsman Peter Burling said he would not be intimidated by the brash Australian.

"What really matters is what you do out on the water and how quick you get around the race course," said Burling, who led Team New Zealand to victory over Spithill's Oracle in Bermuda in 2017.

"That's where we try and let our work on the water do our talking for us."