Scrappy Kiwis have become a fixture in America's Cup match

HAMILTON, Bermuda (AP) It just wouldn't be an America's Cup match without Emirates Team New Zealand on the starting line.

Representing a small, sailing-mad island nation of 4.6 million people and led by seemingly unflappable 26-year-old America's Cup rookie helmsman Peter Burling, the scrappy Kiwis have reached the final round for the sixth time in the last seven editions of sailing's marquee regatta dating to 1995.

The 35th America's Cup will be a grudge match against two-time defending champion Oracle Team USA starting Saturday, contested between space-age, 50-foot catamarans flying on hydrofoils above the turquoise waters of Bermuda's Great Sound.

Four years ago on San Francisco Bay, Team New Zealand reached match point at 8-1 and then collapsed. It was overhauled in eight straight races as Oracle skipper Jimmy Spithill led one of the greatest comebacks in sports to retain the Auld Mug.

A lesser team might have folded after such a gut-wrenching collapse. Kiwis being Kiwis, though, they made big changes, including sacking skipper Dean Barker and replacing him with Burling, an Olympic star. They refused to march in lock-step with organizers and other syndicates over rules changes. And they still emerged as the top challenger.

''We debriefed heavily after San Francisco and I think the lessons we learned out of that have absolutely made us a stronger team going forward,'' said skipper-wingsail trimmer Glenn Ashby, an Australian who is one of the few non-New Zealanders on the team. ''The team really only a couple of years ago was looking down the barrel of having its doors closed. For Emirates Team New Zealand, who has been involved in the America's Cup for such a long period of time, to have that happen would have been a real tragedy.''

Team New Zealand will be an underdog to Oracle Team USA, which is owned by software billionaire Larry Ellison and features three Australians in key decision-making roles, including Spithill. In one of the many breaks from tradition, Oracle sailed against the challengers and won the qualifiers and a so-called bonus point, which is actually a negative point for the Kiwis. While Oracle needs to win seven races, Team New Zealand will need to win eight.

So while rules and traditions change, classes of boats come and go and skippers get replaced, the Kiwis remain a constant in the fight for the oldest trophy in international sports.

Team New Zealand always seems to have innovations no one else thinks of. Sometimes it's simply having the fastest boat, as in 1995 when Russell Coutts skippered the Kiwis to a five-race sweep of Dennis Conner off San Diego to bring the silver trophy to the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron.

In 1986-87, the Kiwis built a 12 meter out of fiberglass, leading Conner to call them cheaters.

Sometimes the innovations don't work. In 2003, they built a hull appendage called a ''hula'' and almost sank in the opening race of a doomed series, and then had their mast snap in Race 4. Coutts, who after defending the Cup for New Zealand in 2000 jumped ship to new syndicate Alinghi of Switzerland, sailed to a sweep that spirited the America's Cup to Europe for the first time.

This year's X-factor could be the ''cyclor'' grinding system. The Kiwis have built four stationary cycling stations into each hull to tap leg power instead of traditional arm power from the grinders.

''I think it's the passion to be aggressive in design and innovation,'' Ashby said. ''I think that's something that has really stood Emirates Team New Zealand apart from a lot of the other teams over the years and this campaign has been absolutely no exception to pushing the boundaries of what is possible and what can be achieved. We've been very aggressive from Day One and we knew we had to be with our design and our program.''

Cash-strapped Team New Zealand was the last squad to arrive in Bermuda. It had been training in Auckland, which in part was how it was able to keep its cycling system a secret until a few months ago.

Australian John Bertrand, who in 1983 beat Conner to snap the New York Yacht Club's 132-year America's Cup winning streak, toured both finalists' compounds Thursday. He's impressed with what the Kiwis have achieved.

''They're tough,'' Bertrand said. ''It's part of their DNA. It's like the All-Blacks. It's of national importance to the country of New Zealand that this team is successful, which I think is just wonderful. That's to the heart. That's part of the motivation here.''

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Follow Bernie Wilson on Twitter at http://twitter.com/berniewilson

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