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America's Cup 'vultures' already circling Team NZ: Dalton

WELLINGTON (Reuters) - Team New Zealand's design and sailing team are under siege from rival challengers keen to snap up their expertise before the next America's Cup, syndicate head Grant Dalton has said.

Team New Zealand (TNZ) were beaten by defenders Oracle Team USA, backed by software billionaire Larry Ellison, in a winner-takes-all final race on San Francisco Bay last week and the future of the syndicate has come under scrutiny.

TNZ's campaign, put in excess of NZ$120 million ($99.08 million), was partially funded by a central government injection of NZ$36 million, and politicians have wavered about committing more funding from the public purse.

"Really the priority is the guys and securing the guys because, it's just a cycle of the America's Cup and the poachers are out hard," Dalton told reporters upon his return to New Zealand from San Francisco on Wednesday.

"There's plenty of billionaires out there that would like to strip us bare quickly.

"We've really got to hold onto the guys, then all of us can plan our own futures, but you've got to hold the guys if there's any chance of keeping the team together.

"So that's a priority. Once that's done we then think about the next step."

Australia's Hamilton Island Yacht Club, owned by wine tycoon and sailing enthusiast Bob Oatley, have already been confirmed as the Challenger of Record and will work with the defenders to determine the format of the next regatta, likely to be in 2016.

After New Zealand's previous challenge in 2007, the government pledged the money early to lock up talent for the next America's Cup cycle before sponsors were found for more funding.

New Zealand Prime Minister John Key told local media that he and Economic Development Minister Steve Joyce, who was in San Francisco for the final stages of the Cup, were open to meeting skipper Dean Barker to discuss another challenge.

"We understand the pressures that they're under," Key told Television New Zealand. "We've also said, 'look, the government's view is we're more than happy to talk to Team NZ'.

"When they're in a position to talk and they felt it makes sense to come and speak to us, pick up the phone and give me a ring or call Steven Joyce."

Both Key and Joyce have said any public money offered would be only a part of the team's overall funding, which would again be expected to be secured mainly through commercial sponsorship.

Barker said the window for securing a sailing and design team was shrinking and that Swedish challenger Artemis, who suffered a fatal accident in the lead-up and were knocked out in the Louis Vuitton Cup, had already approached members of TNZ.

"It is tough, it is really tough, when you are still trying to regather yourself, or compose yourself after what we have been through, and the vultures are already circling," he told local broadcaster TV3.

"We have a very small window of opportunity. Without the money to be able to get going again very quickly we lose the people, and if we lose the people there is no Team New Zealand."

($1 = 1.2111 New Zealand dollars)

(Reporting by Greg Stutchbury in Wellington; Editing by Ian Ransom)

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