As stunning as 2016 was for Matt Wilkinson, his ability to climb back into the Jeep Leader position this year, halfway through the season, is much more impressive. His come-from-behind win today over rookie upstart Connor O'Leary will have finished off any remaining doubters.
Back-to-back Finals in Fiji are no fluke. Leaving Fiji wearing the Jeep Leader jersey for the second consecutive year is no fluke either. What's undeniable is that Wilko's gaining momentum at the midway point of the season…that, and he's surfing a lot better this year.
"I think the difference has been his rail work," says Martin Potter. "He's always been good in the barrel, and his backhand is lethal, but this year he's really been focusing on the forehand turns, and it's really paying off." Indeed, Wilko's forehand flair is what got him over the hump in the Final.
At his core Wilko is a creative who loves to paint outside the lines, and that creativity is what got him on the Championship Tour (CT). But up until 2016, he struggled just to survive at the elite level. It took him six years to crack the top 20. And after finally doing so in 2015, Wilko sought the help of Glenn "Micro" Hall.
Hall made an immediate impact, persuading Wilko to flex the left side of his brain and add more logic to his approach. That simple tweak created a whole new animal. Wilko started the 2016 season surfing smarter, with more strategy and discipline, but with all the usual flair.
The rest is history. With today's win Wilkinson has taken the Jeep Leader jersey from John John Florence, albeit by the slimmest of margins. He's clinging to a tiny 250 point lead as the Championship Tour moves to Jeffreys Bay. Jordy Smith, Owen Wright, and Adriano de Souza are only 650 points behind. And Joel Parkinson has now climbed up into the World Title race after an impressive third place finish at the Outerknown Fiji Pro.
After making his first CT Final in Fiji, rookie Connor O'Leary has moved up eight spots on the Jeep Leaderboard to No. 7, just behind Joel Parkinson. The kid from Cronulla has taken a commanding lead in the race for this year's Rookie of the Year honor.
True to his working-class roots, O'Leary put his time in at Cloudbreak, arriving 10 days early to get familiar with the place and soak in some local knowledge from his coach, Luke Egan, who won here back in 2000.
Egan, mind you, also coached Courtney Conlogue to victory just a week earlier. He's been one of the biggest assets in O'Leary's corner this year, and it showed during Connor's Semifinal match with Joel Parkinson. As Barton Lynch reminded everyone during the broadcast, Egan was Parkinson's coach during Parko's 2012 World Title run, so it's not reaching to say Egan, at this point, knows both O'Leary and Parkinson better than they know themselves when it comes to competing, and the plan he drew up for O'Leary worked exactly how he imagined it would.
Wilkinson's Semifinal battle with Michel Bourez was a much closer affair, and there will be a lot of debating about the finish, given that Bourez earned a mere 6.5 for a lengthy backhand tube. Yet Bourez took the call in stride. "I'm going to send a couple letters to the judges," he joked afterward. "You know, it's part of what we do…I'm super happy to be here, it's pumping, barrels, and sunny. It's a perfect day. I would have liked to bring a win back to Tavarua, but at the end of the day I had fun."
The third-place finish vaulted Bourez up the Jeep Leaderboard 11 spots to No. 12, which is much more in line with analyst's expectations for the Tahitian. His backhand tube-riding display was one of the highlights of the event, and his ferocious carves didn't go unnoticed, either.
Earlier in the day Bourez beat rookie Leonardo Fioravanti in the Quarterfinals. Leo was part of the impressive rookie push here in Fiji, along with O'Leary and France's Joan Duru. Fioravanti edged out fellow rookie Ian Gouveia in Round Five to earn his first Quarterfinal appearance of the season. Duru got the better of Sebastian Zietz, who looked lethal all the way to the end. While Leo and Joan both jumped out of the rankings cellar, they've still got a long way to go to secure CT requalification. Leo is still No. 30. Duru is just ahead of him at No. 27. You can bet both will be at the Ballito QS10,000 Qualifying Series contest with bells on next month.
It's worth noting, now that we're halfway through the year, that we've seen five winners in five events this year, and Kelly Slater, Mick Fanning and Gabriel Medina have yet to catch fire. Whether they will or not is a good question at this point, but Jeffreys Bay sure seems like a place it could happen.
Matt Wilkinson deserves all the respect in the world for getting back in the Jeep Leader jersey. And he should be feeling much more comfortable wearing it this time around, with confidence soaring -- yet, Wilko knows more than anyone at this stage that this thing is far from over. He got his Fiji redemption. Now he's looking for the rest.