The flatware aboard Foxhunter was plated in gold; the beef was tender enough to cut with a golden fork and the drinks were rich and strong.

It was now a matter of only two weeks before the New York Yacht Club would have to select a boat to defend the America's Cup, yachting's sweetest prize, which the club has never lost in 132 years.

Aboard the selection committee's 74-foot motor yacht in Newport, R.I., the tinkly chatter was gracious. Committee members wore traditional Breton red trousers and blue blazers, but when the press turned up hot from work the committee kindly "suspended the rules" in favor of shirtsleeves.

Everything was correct. Or was it?

Here stood lanky Commodore Robert McCullough, selection committee chief and, like many of his colleagues, a former cup skipper. McCullough was saying that if the Australians succeeded in capturing the cup this year, he wouldn't envy the Aussie who'd take over his job of organizing the defense three years hence.

For some reason the talk did not stop with a thud the way it does on television when the man says, "My broker is . . ."

It should have, because McCullough had said the unthinkable, the unpardonable and the unmentionable all at once. What he said presumed the cup could be lost.

Dennis Conner's boat Liberty looks grim. Presumably to minimize drag when she's heeled over under sail, the crew has wet-sanded the red hull of the new boat almost up to the deck line. When wet she still shines, but at the dock she looks like a '74 Oldsmobile that's never been polished.

Liberty stands in stark contrast alongside her sleek blue trial horse, Freedom, the 1980 champion in which Conner sailed to easy victory over the Australians, 4-1. In those days he could afford a nice polish.

As the shine is off the boat, somehow the shine seems off the Conner effort and the American campaign in general.

In 1980, Conner and the Americans had the breakthrough cup ideas, unveiling new Mylar-Kevlar sail material and expanding training by running camp for two years instead of the traditional three months. Conner even had military-style 6 a.m. physical training sessions for the crew.

But his spreading belly belies his assertion that P.T. with the crew still anchors his morning regimen. Syndicate workers snicker at the Liberty rules. "Make sure you have your little lunchbox," said one to another before a day of racing last week. "Make sure your little red pants are on straight."

This gallows humor haunts the Liberty camp, while across the way the Aussies go rollicking out to sea in this year's breakthrough, gleaming new Australia II with her radical, secret keel, and the stereo blasts the Aussie hit, "From the Land Down Under."

Conner is "afraid to lose the cup," according to tactician Gary Jobson of the disappointing 12-meter Defender. Jobson said the defending champion has been faring poorly in final trials to pick a defender because "he doesn't want to be selected. He doesn't want to be the one to lose the cup."

With Defender's elimination yesterday, America's hopes for keeping the cup rest with Conner's Liberty and 10-year-old Courageous. Can one of them beat Australia II or is the secret design from Perth simply too fast?

"Defender brushed with Australia in June," said Jobson, explaining that the two boats found each other one day on Rhode Island Sound and the crews, as racing sailors will, lit off to see which was faster.

At the end of a half-hour on one tack, Jobson said, they remained exactly even.

Yet while the three American contenders have battled each other all summer for a small edge, Australia II has raced the six other foreign contenders 49 times and lost only five.

Is it a measure of how good Australia is or how bad her competition is? Jobson's brush is encouraging as the only concrete indication of what Australia could do against an American boat, but who knows if she was sailed to her maximum potential that day?

What is known is that Australia II, with her bulbous, winged keel, can change tacks faster than any conventional 12-meter.

It takes her about 10 seconds to power up to speed after a tack, where a conventional boat might take 15, knowledgeable sources say. That's a tremendous tactical advantage, particularly at the start line where fast tacks are powerful weapons to gain advantage.

And she may be able to point closer to the wind than the Americans.

If some American sailors were distracted by the summer-long mortar shots coming across the docks as the Aussies scored victory after victory, John Kolius says he wasn't.

Out of curiosity, the young skipper of Courageous, which has compiled the best record in final trials to pick a U.S. defender, checked recently with his crew.

"I asked them as we were coming in from racing, 'Is anybody here afraid of the Australians?' Not one of them was, just like I figured. That was the only time that question came up, and the only time it will."

The New York Yacht Club and the U.S. Yacht Racing Union may not be afraid, but they are concerned. USYRU, with substantial impetus from the NYYC, spent the last month protesting the Australian keel as a "peculiarity" that gave the Aussies an unfair advantage. USYRU wanted Australia II penalized under the 12-meter rule.

The protest was sent to the International Yacht Racing Union, which was to convene Tuesday in London to determine whether to call a special meeting of its Keelboat Technical Committee to rule on the protest.

But Friday, NYYC decided to end its protracted protest, which sources in the IYRU said had little likelihood of success.

Thus, the complicated politics of this year's cup have finally given way and the sport takes over again. The 12-meters of both sides are sparring now for the right to seek the title. Australia II and Britain's Victory '83 begin a final best-of seven elimination series today. The two U.S boats will continue daily racing Monday until a defender is picked no later than Sept. 8.

On Sept. 13, the two selected yachts will square off, beginning this chapter of the greatest challenge series in yachting.

They will start at opposite ends of an imaginary line and converge, like heavyweights tapping gloves before a championship fight.

Within minutes, it should finally be made clear just how good Australia II is, or isn't.