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Nerves jangle as NZ prepares for America's Cup clinchers

By Greg Stutchbury

AUCKLAND (Reuters) - New Zealand sailing fans are set to descend on Auckland's Waterfront on Wednesday as the America's Cup enters what could be its final day.

Team New Zealand hold a 7-1 lead over technology billionaire Larry Ellison's Oracle Team USA and could wrap up the trophy on Wednesday with Dean Barker's team requiring just two more wins to reclaim the trophy they lost in 2003.

Local media compared the anxiety among sailing fans to that felt during the 2011 Rugby World Cup final, when the All Blacks hung on to beat France 8-7 at Eden Park.

"If that 2011 Rugby World Cup final was nerve-racking, where does this America's Cup final sit on the anxiety scale?" Fairfax Media senior sports correspondent Duncan Johnstone wrote in an opinion piece from San Francisco on Tuesday.

"Two iconic New Zealand teams, two pinnacle occasions. One nation transfixed both times.

"This is going to be tight. This is going to be tense ... The closer Team New Zealand gets to lifting the America's Cup, the harder the assignment gets."

The New Zealand Herald provided a tongue-in-cheek piece on how fans could beat the stress, including having an asparagus omelette for breakfast, 'staying in the now' or simply 'don't watch it'.

"As unpatriotic as that may sound, if it's all too much, the best thing to do is walk away," Steve Deane wrote in Tuesday's New Zealand Herald newspaper.

"Turn the TV off and go for a walk. But don't pop into your local cafe as there's almost certainly going to be someone watching the live streaming ... and you'll get sucked back in."

NEAR CAPSIZE

Insecurity has been gnawing at sailing fans in New Zealand since the massive AC-72 Aotearoa almost capsized in race eight in strong winds on San Francisco Bay.

The boat heeled to an almost 45-degree pitch on its port hull when the massive wingsail failed to tack in sync with the boat and local media reported only the work of the grinders, who continued to provide hydraulic pressure to the ram that controls the wing, allowed the catamaran to flop back into the water.

Boat changes to Oracle have dramatically increased their upwind speed as well, while the execution of upwind tacks and downwind gybes by Jimmy Spithill's team has also improved.

Those nerves were on full display during the races on Monday when about 500 people flopped onto beanbags and sat on carpenter's trestles set up in a shed on Auckland's waterfront to watch the races on a big screen as part of the city's efforts to cater to the increasing interest in the event.

The location, organised by Waterfront Auckland and the Sir Peter Blake Trust, was also the site of a massive open-air venue during the Rugby World Cup when thousands watched the final.

More than 1,500 had crammed into the venue at the weekend, Sir Peter Blake Trust Chief Executive Shelley Campbell told Reuters, as she stood beside a trestle table selling pairs of the 'lucky red socks' favoured by former syndicate head Blake when Team New Zealand won the America's Cup in 1995.

"The first day we didn't have a lot of time to let people know so they built up from a couple of hundred up to 1,500 (at the weekend)," Campbell said. "People have realised how exciting it is to watch with other people."

Blake was also the mainsail trimmer for the successful challenge in San Diego in 1995, when the only race the team lost was when the former round-the-world sailor was off the boat.

The trust, set up after Blake was killed in Brazil in 2001, had sold thousands of pairs of the socks and were shipping them nationwide, she said.

"People really wanted to get behind Team New Zealand by wearing their red socks.

"The exciting thing is that it's not the fact they've been winning, but how they've been winning," she added of the understated approach by the entire team.

"They're superbly focused and disciplined. That one race at a time thing is going to pay off for them."

(Editing by Peter Rutherford)

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