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THE MID YEAR BLUES

Where do we go from here?!

Australia is a wrap. The Margaret River Pro is a week in the rear mirror. “Schnappa” was just taken out by the best-unsponsored surfer on tour and a prodigal daughter, respectively. But the hangover lingers. Surfers missing the cut are washing away their sorrows. Surfers still employed for the second half of the year, turning it up to 100.

The obvious. Double W’s on home soil is one way to make a statement. It’s a pretty good time to be Australian right now. Not so much if your name starts with Joao or ends in Sakura Johnson. Apart from the tears shed in the West, they also share one other thing in common; the notoriety no one wanted – to have missed out on the second half of the Cream Tour.

But first things first. John John Florence. No, wait, Jack Robinson turned home-field advantage into victory, taking out the whole damn thing with a pair of excellent scores in surprisingly fun Main Break. Now imagine this same Final over at the Box. John and Jack trading hollow pits like it’s Jeremy Flores trading Bitcoins himself. Sorta high risk, high reward type deal, and we probably would have been witnessing the greatest piece of surf entertainment since Bobby Martinez back in 2011. 

(Photo by Matt Dunbar/World Surf League)

It didn’t happen. But let a boy dream.

On the women’s side. What a way to thread the needle, Gabriela Bryan and Issy Nichols! If coming in clutch was a person, she would be half Hawaiian, half Aussie. Half Billabong, Half Hurley. Both ladies found themselves way below the cutline post Bells, but a last-ditch Hail Mary at Main Break resulted in a final that Nichols basically had to win (which she did) to keep her spot on tour, while Bryan’s first-ever final appearance made her the Rookie Of The Year. Kind of a no-brainer considering that she’ll be the only true Rookie repping the WSL lycra at G-Land.

The Margaret River Pro cull season was its own ‘Make or Break’ episode without the AUD 7.99 a month commitment. As a fan, there’s no better viewing experience than seeing athletes deflated, collecting themselves on the beach or getting philosophical and emotional in their post-heat interviews. It might be controversial, but Elo managed to turn surfing from a horse race (where, for the most part, people care about booze and the walk of shame later) into a sporting spectacle with real consequences and merit. 

Taking the athletes’ angle, though, this mid-year cut business is a joke. Unlike recent years the guillotine came down hard during the peak of the season, and we lost surfers that belong on tour. Just to put things into perspective. Across the men’s and women’s tours, we lost three surfers that made the Final 5 last year. We also lost two previous World Champion runner-ups in Sally and Owen Wright. We said goodbye to the Ultimate surfer and Jacob Willcox’ pal, Zeke Lau. And we lost Joao Chianca, aka, Chumbinho, the surfer with the highest combined heat totals all year.

The curious case of Joao Chianca is, well, a curious one! As a rookie, the WSL chucked him one of the bottom seeds, meaning that he was up against the best from day one on tour, essentially learning the Champagne Tour life on the fly in 95 days. Coming up short after boosting above excellent scores all year might indicate that Elo’s high-fatality-rate system might have a few cracks too many.

But it was decided by the WSL and apparently agreed by the surfers in the choir. There were talks of boycotts and petitions, but Elo stood firm, citing an agreement in an official statement, basically squashing efforts made by 29 (out of 51) surfers to reconsider the mid-season cut.

But as the controversy continues to unfold, the mid-season cut also has a ripple effect, impacting the second half of the tour and, more importantly, the Challenger Series.

Those booted from the comfy confines of the Cream Tour competitors’ area all need shelter. And for most of the homeless competitors, the Challenger Series provides just that and much more. So much has been said about the new and improved Challenger Series, and up until this point, we didn’t really get the idea (or the need) for a Challenger Series.

But after the firesale in the West, it becomes apparent that the WSL’s second-tier competition is the real deal. Competitors have one goal; to qualify for the CT. The field is a juggernaut of competition as world tour surfers missing the cut meet the hottest, most fierce new guard of competitors arriving via the regional qualifiers and trying to qualify for the Joe Turpel show. 

At the end of the season, the Top 10 Men and Top 6 Women on the Challenger Series rankings will qualify for the 2023 CT. Only the top five results of the eight Challenger Series competitions will count toward their end-of-year rankings.

As you can see, the Challenger Series is essentially a sprint-type competition with only eight events, starting at Snapper on May 7th and ending in Hawaii in December. If this isn’t the most incredible script for fun surfing, I don’t know what is!

Do you need more evidence on just how good the Challenger Series will be this year? Here we go! Round 96 at Snapper, Heat 3 featured Deivid Silva, Rio Waida, Josh Moniz and Mateus Herdy. Or Heat 16 was a nailbiter thriller between Lucca Mesinas, Ramzi Boukhiam, Koa Smith and Matty Banting, only followed three Heats later by a foursome between Ryan Callinan, Alex Ribeiro, Santiago Muniz and Julian Wilson.

(Photo by Andrew Shield/World Surf League)

And we haven’t even talked about the women’s matchups, where, just like on the CT, the field of talent is even closer together. Malia Manuel and Luana Silva started their tour de re-qualification on point, while World Number 1 Brissa Hennessy bailed in Round 64. This is how cutthroat the women’s side of the Challenger Series is! Someone’s loss is someone else’s gain. It’s beautiful!

But the real magic, displaying the true potential of the Challenger Series, happened in the later Rounds of the Superbank Cup. Jumping straight into the Quarters, where Italian export recently booted from the CT, Leo Fioravanti, came up short against Nolan Rapoza. Nolan Who?! Also making it through to the Semis, Maxime Huscenot. Maxime Who?! Exactly my point! It’s great to see unknown (at least to some) punters taking out tried and tested veterans with tour experience. 

Excuse Moi for my American Sports reference here, but The Challenger Series reminds me an awful lot of College Football, or, Gridiron for some. The NFL is the crown jewel of the sport (just like the CT), but it really is in College Football where the bulk of the drama happens ( just like the Challenger Series). When currently unknown, unproven talents rise up and ruffle the egos of the stars of the sport it’s a beautiful thing!

This claim will further be solidified headed into the final round of the event. Molly Picklum came up against Caity Simmer, who pulled a Taj earlier in the season, opting against a spot on the Dream Tour. Molly Picklum ironically replaced Caity Simmer on the CT headed into the year, closing the circle of life on the Rocks at Snapper for an epic Final. Caity won by a bead of wax with 35 seconds left on the clock in white basin Snapper, but who cares! It was one of the craziest moments since Parko flipped off Kelly inside a Kirra cylinder back in 2013. Priority’s a b***h!

The men’s final was slightly less dramatic but made up for it with stellar surfing. The all Aussie final featured a CT guy vs. an up-and-comer, which is, in a nutshell, the elevator pitch for the new Quali format. Local punter Sheldon eventually lost to Rook of the year Callum Robson who is still missing prime real estate on the tip of his board. Please, can anyone pick this kid up already? Billabong, Quik, RVCA, Roark, Woolworths?! Anyone!!

(Photo by Matt Dunbar/World Surf League)

On the other hand, the CT will return in just under a month, somewhere in the Indonesian archipelago with fewer surfers plus a couple of wildcards the panel of keyboard punters isn’t happy about. But there’s no time for me to write about whether WSL’s long-lost kids – Medina or Sally Fitz, deserve their walkthroughs or not. Besides, the comment sections of every half-decent surf publication have already taken care of that.

Next up, Indo and watching a guy called Noa Mizuno making porn on a twin fin. Also beautiful, and kids can watch it too! They might learn something. You’re welcome!

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