Opinion:

Emirates Team New Zealand without Peter Burling and Blair Tuke? It might be unlikely – but it is possible.

Those among us with a tendency to be glass-half-empty will be remembering the Alinghi raids of 2000, when Swiss billionaire Ernesto Bertarelli made off with Team NZ leading lights Russell Coutts and Brad Butterworth – and took the America’s Cup too, in 2003.

That doesn’t seem feasible this time, even though Burling and Tuke have taken the rather odd step of issuing a written statement saying they want more clarity before signing on with Team NZ again.

It’s been well-known in sailing circles that the duo hasn’t re-signed. The rumour mill has been grinding out stories about a visit to Switzerland, home of Bertarelli. That has not been lessened by their statement.

“We’re supportive of Team New Zealand management’s efforts to ensure a successful defence of the America’s Cup and respect the complexities the next event will bring in a post-Covid world,” it said. “As you can appreciate, we’d like clarity on the fundamentals of the event before we commit. We’re in regular conversation with the team as the process is worked through.”

So why even make a statement? Media queries?Sure, but they wouldn’t be the first professional sportspeople to forgo comment on contract negotiations. So what, exactly, do they need clarity on?

It’s not like the rules allow them to go anywhere else. The sailing crew of any Cup challenger has to be 100 per cent composed of people from the challenging country; they either had to have a passport from that country at the time of the last Cup race in Auckland or have spent 18 months out of the previous three years in that country.

Neither applies to Burling and Tuke. The nationality rule can be bent if you are an “emerging nation”, unable to garner a crew from your own nationals. Like China, for example. However, even then, the crew has to be signed off by…Team NZ.

Sailing’s gossip-gathering ranks have long been picking up signals that Bertarelli is interested in this Cup – and may enter, if the circumstances are right. There is talk he has already made some hires and some big offers but is almost certainly waiting for the protocol to be released on November 17 before deciding whether to challenge or not.

And that’s the key: the protocol (the ground rules for the event), plus the ongoing search for an offshore venue that will offer enough dollars for Team NZ to stage a defence.

Bertarelli is a former funder of Team NZ – he lent them millions ahead of the 2007 America’s Cup in Valencia to make sure their then lack of funding didn’t stop them from competing as Alinghi defended the Cup. He has a big chequebook.

There is yet to be a venue chosen for the next regatta. Team NZ are still talking to Ireland, Spain and Saudi Arabia about the next regatta – but what happens if none sign a hosting agreement?

That’s also unlikely but, if that happens, everything is up for, er, clarification – and the theory is that things like nationality rules might come up for re-negotiation, especially if there is money attached.

And let’s say it out loud: professional sportspeople have a perfect right to obtain employment where their skills are appreciated and recompensed; it’s the name of the game.

Burling and Tuke could be holding off just to see what their diaries will look like – because they’ve been very busy boys with many opportunities to earn big bucks from sailing. They’re already on retainer from Team NZ and also competed in the 49er class at the Tokyo Olympics (winning silver), are racing right now in Larry Ellison’s and Coutts’ Sail GP series and are also committed to their Live Ocean marine conservation foundation.

There are plenty of other money-earning opportunities for the duo, even aside from the America’s Cup. They may fancy rowing their own boat, so to speak, becoming their own self-funding team, not just part of Team NZ.

That could be enhanced if they receive a big-money offer to join another Cup team – maybe not to race in this next regatta, but to train, coach and share the knowledge of successful Cup challengers and defenders.If the challenge was successful, they’d be straight back in the afterguard to defend it.

Some think the pair has been spreading themselves a bit thin in all their endeavours; silver was a fine achievement in Tokyo but also a disappointment. Burling himself called it “bittersweet” and there is a body of thought that it would have been gold had they been able to spend more time in the 49er boat.

So what would all this mean for Team NZ? Not much good – though there’s a question over whether Team NZ’s biggest asset is Burling and Tuke or the design team who turned out the fastest boat last time. There are other world-class sailors on board, Glenn Ashby for one.

It’s not likely to happen, probably won’t. But it gives you a bit of a queasy feeling. After all, the last time this kind of thing surfaced, it didn’t end well.

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