The Stage Is Set
There's a point in the early stages of the WSL's Qualifying Series (QS) when the chase for points begins in earnest. With the early rounds of the Maitland and Port Stephens Toyota Pro at Merewether Beach, NSW, now in the books, the season has reached that point.
Yes, every event on tour, big or small, has its own relative significance. But in terms of the Championship Tour (CT) chase, anything below a QS 6,000 doesn't come into play other than to establish a higher seed for some time down the road. That's the long play, the long line troll to catch a bigger fish.
But for serious contenders who have scratched and clawed their way into coveted high-seed draws, any event worth fewer points than 6,000 will realistically have little to no effect on their CT dreams.
As is the tradition, the Australian leg dominates a sizable chunk of the early season calendar. After a number of smaller events across Oz's eastern coast, the first QS 6,000 of the year gets positioned against a second event (the Australian Open of Surfing), then squeezed into a frenetic three-week window in February along the sultry coast of New South Wales. It's the first opportunity to bank two solid results before the next QS 6,000 in Japan, nearly three months from now.
Six weeks after that, in early July, the tour heads to the suburbs of Durban, South Africa, for the crucible of the Ballito Pro, a QS10,000. An event that has proven it can turn an entire season around, defending 2016 event champ Connor O'Leary was just one surfer who used it to catapult his way onto the Dream Tour.
It's pretty early in the game to start looking for trends, but since we're here, let's dig in:
Australian Soli Bailey -- by virtue of his Volcom Pipe Pro win -- sits in pole position with 3,000 points, followed by a mixed bag of CT stalwarts, aging vets and eager contenders. After eight events, there's now a six-pack of QS campaigners with quality QS1,000 wins under their belts, including Aussie Jack Robinson, American Cam Richards and Brazil's Peterson Crisanto (with a QS 1,500 win).
Over the past two seasons surfers who've qualified for the Championship Tour through the QS have done so with at least one strong result from a QS1000 event.
Recent history also indicates surfers need approximately 18,000 - 20,000 points to qualify (due to Kanoa Igarashi double-qualifying last year, Zeke Lau made the cut at No. 11 with 18,750 points).
It's still early days at the Maitland and Port Stephens Toyota Pro, but a trio of world-class Aussies -- Owen Wright, Ryan Callinan and Jack Freestone -- has been the group of in-form surfers so far. Owen's feel-good comeback is straight out of a Hollywood scriptwriter's leather attaché, and his surfing hasn't lost a beat. Callinan, who fell of the CT at the end of 2016, is looking back in form, showing some swagger at his home break.
But it's when some of the high seeds begin to drop out early, as happened in Round Two, things get really interesting.
For your consideration, here's the short list of Round Two casualties: reigning event champ and CT No. 5 Matt Wilkinson, CT No. 8 Julian Wilson, CT No. 20 Stu Kennedy, CT No. 21 Kanoa Igarashi, 2016 QS No. 2 Ethan Ewing, and Nat Young, who fell off the Championship Tour last season, but spent two of his first three years on the CT inside the Top 10 rankings.
That's a pretty significant list of big names getting scalped. Now there's a trend worth watching.