Finals day at the Rip Curl Rottnest Search. Semi-finalists set, and Australia’s best chance (on the men’s side) for a win since Owen Wright threaded his way to victory in his Gath helmet at Teahupoo way back in 2019. Let that sink in for a moment, No Australian has won a men’s tour event since 2019. Even when you consider Covid wiping out 2020, it’s still a little surreal. And a dire indictment of where Australian surfing currently sits.
But there we were, two Aussies in semi-final number one. A guaranteed finalist. Unfancied Aussies Morgan Cibilic and Liam O’Brien saving Australia’s blushes where Julian, Owen, Mikey, Ethan, Jack, etc. couldn’t.
Who would carry the hopes of a nation into the final? The last chance for an Aussie win on home soil in 2021. As it turned out, it would be Morgs.
It was a close heat, though. The two felt each other out in tricky conditions for much of the encounter. The swell almost overpowering the set-up at Strickland Bay, making it hard to find the lip as the lefts rushed down the reef before hitting the gurgling end section.
It was in the last 10 minutes when Morgan began to pull away. Utilising the dynamic power and coil we’ve seen on display throughout the Australian leg to edge out the smooth and laconic rail work of Liam O’Brien. Also playing into Morg’s favour were the heat-smarts he’d picked up during his whirlwind run of the last couple of months.
That was until the last minute of the heat when Liam sold Morgan on an absolute lemon, leaving Liam out the back with a bomb rolling his way. It was a golden opportunity to snatch the win, but luckily for Morgan, Liam couldn’t get the job done.
On paper, semi-final two should’ve been the marquee heat of the event. Italo Ferreira up against Gabe Medina in good lefts. They came out swinging, both looking to land monster rotations at the beginning of the heat. However, it was Medina who gained the early advantage after locking in an 8.5 to Italo’s 6.17. And apart from a couple of minor scores, that’s the way it stayed until the hooter. Medina through to the final without much bother.
Before Morgan and Gabe took to the water to duke it out, the Women’s final took centre stage, and another chance for Australia to claim a win, with Sally Fitz taking on a red-hot Johanne Defay.
Sally Fitz. The little Aussie battler. She should’ve won a world title by now, and has always been right there, but has never quite got it done. It could turn a lesser human into a bitter and jaded soul, but not our Sal, the woman radiates positivity from her every pore.
In shades of her heroic 2015 win at Cloudbreak with a busted eardrum. Today Sally turned back the clock and went into attack mode on the Wadjemup lefts. With two ears fully functioning, she showed no hesitation in throwing herself at the dry(ish) end section for her chance at victory. The judges ate it up, and rightly so.
Her opponent, Johanne Defay, had been on a tear during the event. A magic board helping her slay competitors on the way to the final. Quizzically, Johanne elected to abandon that board for the final, instead choosing to ride a step up.
While Johanne struggled with wave selection and the foreign board beneath her feet, Sally took charge and was simply surfing too strong to be denied, taking the win reasonably easily. The victory putting her in the race for the world title showdown. Could Sal get one last shot at that World Title?
Medina was never gonna take Morgan Cibilic lightly. He’s far too smart for that. And it showed in his intent. Going for broke early in the final with a gigantic oop attempt that had Richie Lovett gasping and viewers around the globe worrying about Medina’s ankles. Ankles that Richie Lovett claimed to have checked out and reported to be “so strong”.
Muscular ankles intact, Medina quickly shook it off and iced a safe seven (by Medina's standards) to get an early lead over the Australian.
Morgan replied with a powerful display on a sizeable left. The judges split on whether he rode out of the final turn or not. The scores showed that some judges rewarded the final hit, while others didn’t. Personally, I don’t see how it was complete as he never emerged from the whitewater completely, which we all now know is the all-important marker of a successful ride. The divisive scores gave Morgan the better of the exchange and the lead.
It was reported that Andy King sent Medina into the final with the mantra that the air was his weapon, but as Ronnie Blakey noted, Medina probably had Morgan’s number in the power department too if he chose to use it. And on the very next wave, he did, delivering a series of searing turns for an 8.50 and the lead.
The Australian was left needing an 8.24 to claw back the lead, and it asked a big question of both Morgan’s mettle and his ability to mix it up and deliver something to eclipse the variety Medina displayed.
Morgan sat and waited for a wave that would allow him a chance at the score, but it never rolled in.
Medina victorious at the conclusion of the long, long Australian leg, and he is looking more and more like the man to beat for the 2021 World Title.