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  Friday, 14 February, 2003, 13:58 GMT
D-Day for Cup finalists
Alinghi skipper Russell Coutts (left) and Team New Zealand counterpart Dean Barker
Skippers Coutts (left) and Barker go head-to-head
Team New Zealand and Switzerland's Alinghi begin their best-of-nine showdown for the America's Cup in Auckland on Saturday.

Defending champions TNZ, winners in 1995 and 2000, will race for the first time in this year's event after watching Alinghi romp through the Louis Vuitton Cup challenger series.

The Swiss syndicate, backed by biotechnology billionaire Ernesto Bertarelli, beat off nine challengers on Auckland's Hauraki Gulf for the right to take on Team New Zealand.

We are going to see if we can make history

Alinghi boss Ernesto Bertarelli

Alinghi will be skippered by Kiwi Russell Coutts, the key man in TNZ's 5-0 whitewash of Italian team Prada in 2000.

Coutts' opposite number will be his former deputy Dean Barker, who skippered TNZ in the final race three years ago.

Alinghi will use the same SUI-64 boat with which they blazed to a record of 29 wins, four losses in the challenger series.

Alinghi (top) and Team New Zealand
Alinghi and TNZ will face off in Auckland

They completed their route to the final with a 5-1 Louis Vuitton Cup final win over US software billionaire Larry Ellison's Oracle syndicate.

Team New Zealand, meanwhile, are untested on the race track this time around but have had three years to develop their 2000 Cup-winning boats and to train intensively.

The Kiwi syndicate have developed a hull appendage - the so-called hula - which is designed to increase speed without contravening the complex boat length rules.

"The boats are different enough that there should be some differences in performance, and that's one of the great and exciting things about this event," said Coutts.

Bertarelli's team is aiming to become the first challenger to win the America's Cup at their first attempt.

He said: "We are going to see if we can make history.

"The America's Cup is about challenges and if there is an extra one for us, we'll take it on.

"We are very pleased with the support we are getting ourselves from Switzerland - the towns have been decorated with the Alinghi flag.

"We just received a very nice letter from the president of our country, and it was very helpful because it has a lot of things in there that are things that Alinghi believe in."

The America's Cup is the oldest sporting trophy, and was first competed for off the Isle of Wight, England in 1851.

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