-- America's Cup fans here think they already know who the enemy will be when Team New Zealand mounts its second Cup defense Feb. 15.

"It's Russ vs. Us," proclaimed the local Sunday Star, confirming that the paper, like most of its readers, expects former TNZ skipper Russell Coutts to bring his high-flying Swiss entry Alinghi to the match.

But hang on -- before we get that far there's the small matter of best-of-nine challenger finals starting next Saturday, when Coutts and his mates face fellow Kiwi Chris Dickson on U.S.-flagged Oracle/BMW for the right to advance to the Cup match.

It's an intriguing matchup as the two expatriates, who raced on Hauraki Gulf as youngsters and went on represent their nation at the highest level of the sport, compete on home waters for the right to try to snatch from their homeland sailing's top prize.

Coutts, 40, has been the more successful of the two over the years, with an Olympic gold medal and two America's Cup wins on his resume. Dickson, 41, sailed in the Olympics once without a medal and for the Cup four times from three nations without a win, including a near-miss as the 25-year-old skipper of Kiwi Magic in 1986-87, the first time New Zealand joined the fray.

Coutts is the favorite again. Alinghi beat Oracle five of the six times they raced, including a 4-0 pasting in challenger quarterfinals.

But Coutts also is something of an antihero in these parts, criticized by one group called Loyal and another called Blackheart for abandoning his country after winning the Cup in 1995 and successfully defending it in 2000.

The threat that Alinghi will take the Cup away has grown stronger as the Swiss compiled a 21-3 record in racing, but oddly, criticism of Coutts has moderated. Some expect it to resurface in spades if Alinghi advances to the match.

While Coutts has the fuller resume as an adult, Dickson was more successful as a youth. Both came up through junior sailing programs of the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron, the club that now holds the Cup. Dickson won the world youth sailing championships three straight times for RNZYS, said Harold Bennett, who coached both skippers as youngsters, while Coutts won only once, in his final try.

"They're very different people," said Bennett, "but they're a lot alike in approach. Both are dedicated, aggressive and methodical. Neither one leaves any stone unturned" in preparing for a match.

Dickson has a reputation for being hard to get along with, while Coutts is smoother. Dickson's prickly nature got him put off Oracle for several months and when he was reinstated as skipper in November, replacing billionaire owner Larry Ellison, veteran U.S. sailor Stu Argo of Detroit went home rather than sail with him.

But Bennett believes Dickson turned the program around after a rocky start. "I think Chris made a huge difference when he went back onboard and straightened things out," he said. Indeed, Oracle went on an 11-0 winning streak under Dickson before colliding with Alinghi in the quarterfinals.

Dickson grew up in Auckland sailing 7-foot P-class dinghies, then moved up to two-man racing dinghies. "He dominated at the time," said Bennett. "Nobody in this country got close to him and nobody in the world really got close" as Dickson swept his three youth championships.

Coutts, a year behind, learned his sailing in the southern city of Dunedin. He stuck with single-handed dinghies through youth programs, finally winning the world championships at 18, then went on to the Olympics to take gold in single-handed Finn class in 1984 despite searing pain from saltwater boils on his backside.

By the time Coutts recovered, Dickson was ensconced as skipper of Kiwi Magic, the 1986-87 Cup campaign of Sir Michael Fay that lost to Dennis Conner's Stars & Stripes in the challenger final in Fremantle, Australia.

Dickson sailed impressively that season but made few friends as a cocky youngster. When the campaign ended, Fay had seen enough and said Dickson would never sail for him again. When Fay's 1992 Team New Zealand campaign made it to challenger finals in San Diego, Coutts was the rising star and Dickson was skippering for Japan.

Coutts won the Cup at the helm of Team New Zealand's Black Magic three years later in San Diego, while Dickson was fronting his own, underfunded campaign, a one-boat effort called Tag Heuer that was eliminated in the semifinals.

Today Coutts and his longtime tactician, Brad Butterworth, are sharply criticized around Auckland for abandoning Team New Zealand and taking a half-dozen top crewmen with them to Switzerland after leading the successful 2000 defense. Dickson by contrast is considered an innocent. He left to sail for other countries, Kiwis reckon, only because he was not wanted at home.

Despite similar backgrounds, Coutts and Dickson are not longtime rivals on the water and bear no particular venom for one other, said Bennett. They rarely sailed against each other as youngsters because they were a year apart in age, came from different parts of the country and one sailed single-handed dinghies and the other double-handed.

Now they come home to a matchup all the sailing world will be watching. Who's going to win?

"I wouldn't hazard a guess," said Bennett, who now is race director for the America's Cup match. "If the boats are equal, there's no way of knowing. But if one boat is faster than the other, as it often is in this game, there's no question which way it will go -- to the faster boat."

Russell Coutts, left, a two-time America's Cup winner with Team New Zealand, now leads Swiss entry Alinghi. Fellow Kiwi Chris Dickson, right, guides U.S. challenger Oracle/BMW.