Ross Williams spent 10 years as a Championship Tour (CT) competitor. Currently, he's a World Surf League (WSL) analyst and contributes a Fantasy surfing column before each event on the elite Tour. Sign up and set your lineup for the Quiksilver Pro Gold Coast, which kicks off February 28 at 7:30 a.m. local time.
Making the perfect picks for your Fantasy team is always going to be a challenge. The playing field is ever-changing: Waves are unpredictable, surfers are streaky and the scores are often inharmonious with what you'd like to see. Breathe it in, people! All that wonderful uncertainty is the very DNA of competitive surfing.
As usual, I will give you six picks: Three that have the goods for that event as well as three that might be better left on the bench until the conditions complement their technique. At the end of the day we will hold our breath and hang on every wave, score and hack as our horses rip their way through the year.
Snapper Rocks is a perfect example of why picking winners come with nuances. Sure, the wave is epic, but it doesn't exactly lend itself to everyone's strengths. It has a camouflaged takeoff zone in that it's difficult to pick the right wave. The difference between the second and third wave in a set can be the difference between a midrange score and a 10!
Not every wave hits the sand perfectly and that's where the locals have an advantage. The wave is tough to read. Surfers need to know when to speed up and slow down, when to hammer a turn and when to tuck into a pit. The wave demands your attention and makes you pay if you have poor timing or if you use a forced rhythm. Tides are also a huge influence at Snapper. Many surfers will -- or at least they should -- have two types of boards with them on the Gold Coast: One for high tide, which can be fat and mushy, and one for low tide, which is dredged-out with very little room in the pocket.
Tier A: John John Florence (HAW)
I must confess John John is a little bit of an unpredictable factor to rely on at a spot like Snapper. He's a lanky guy and his technique, despite being among the best in the biz, can be problematic in that tight, little pocket that the Superbank produces. Now, this doesn't mean he can't do well here, but he has room to improve and I think he'd agree that his results here have done him few favors. Take a look to see what I'm talking about:
Florence loves to open up when he's surfing, using his length as leverage -- and he's been getting stronger every year. But he could really up his overall game if he added a compact power-snap to his repertoire. With Snapper's tight transitions, a quick snap while covering his board would allow him to bag easy scores without getting too disconnected. That type of maneuver would allow him to come out of it without losing speed, promoting momentum down the line.
Since Florence is one my picks, you might be wondering why I'm filling you with doubt. The fact that his completion percentage on his big moves is through the roof makes him too much fun not to pick. The kicker? He's sharpened his mind when it comes to competing. I think watching Gabriel Medina (BRA) stack up all those gritty wins last year opened John John's mind to what it takes to win a World Title. It's not going unnoticed, as everyone is looking at him as a World Title contender in 2015. Start 'em!
Tier B: Julian Wilson (AUS)
After a dismal start in 2014, Julian had a dream finish with a win at the Billabong Pipe Masters. Any athlete will gain confidence off a win, but Julian really needed it.
Julian had such a poor year that he was forced to surf a number of Qualifying Series (QS) events to keep his spot on the CT. I'm sure he knows he's a Top 5 guy, but when you stack up a pile of bad results, it does funny things to your head. You start to believe you're only as good as your last result and end up nursing a battered ego. The combination of all the 2014 CT losses capped off with a big win will inject him with just the right cocktail of confidence and determination to have himself a terrific 2015 run.
Snapper allows Julian to show off his strengths: Power-hooks, rhythm and, of course, above-the-lip surfing. He'll need aviation goggles to deal with all the airtime he'll have when those ramps show up. Of course, when it comes to airs, Wilson's not the only one who flies: Guys like John John and Filipe Toledo (BRA) are hard to keep up with, but Wilson reigns supreme. Snapper Rocks is the perfect spot for him to pick up where he left off in Hawaii and grab his first win of the season. Start 'em!
Tier C: Dusty Payne (HAW)
Much like Julian, regardless of his result on the Gold Coast, Dusty will need to have thick skin to keep any negative thoughts at bay. But something tells me this won't be a problem. Dusty's relatively young career has been a roller coaster, equipping him to deal with rough terrain. Beaten down both mentally and physically, after falling off Tour in 2014 he went soul-searching to see if he could get motivated to compete again. In one year he found it and was able to thrust himself back into the elite ranks.
In fact, Dusty surprised himself: He planned on working for a chance to compete in the Prime events, the most prestigious of those on the Qualifying Series (QS). But everything happens for a reason. After surgery last year, Dusty had to train rigorously to get his knee back in surfing form. He came out of it looking more like a linebacker than a surfer, which helped him destroy waves and up his confidence level. He got his head right, too, finding that stoke that he discovered as a grom.
Snapper Rocks will be a nice canvas for him to carve out those vicious hacks that he displayed during this winter during the Triple Crown in Hawaii. Dusty is coming in hot. Start 'em!
Tier A: Adriano de Souza (BRA)
Let's get one thing straight: There are no weak players in the entire Top 34, let alone Tier A! Every surfer in the top tier has a great chance at actually winning the event. So how do you decipher it all?
Don't play sentimental favorites. Don't pick based on your home country. Pick smart and, if you have time, do a little bit of homework. Facebook is a great place to check on the status of the guys as they often post their latest surfs, training sessions and maybe most importantly their health status. Cue ADS: He seems to be recovering from a knee injury that plagued him during the latter part of the 2014 season. He's hoping to compress his recommended 60 days of physical therapy down to 30 so that he'll be ready for Snapper.
De Souza has a great record there and is no doubt coming in with a lot of motivation. My concern is that if you're going to start a guy, especially in Tier A, you want him to be ready to push as hard as he wants in those tight hooks. De Souza says he's ready to go but I'm willing keep him on the bench for the first event to see how he holds up. Sit 'em.
Tier B: Freddy Patacchia Jr. (HAW)
Freddy is healthy and fired up. His backhand is sharp and his attitude is resilient. That all said, the Hawaiian is no spring chicken and with the majority of the field chucking their tails and launching for the moon, he may be surfing with his back against the wall. With good wave selection and minimal mistakes, Freddy can put together a solid heat. What's concerning is that missing X-factor that gives his peers an edge at Snapper. Sit 'em.
Tier C: C.J. Hobgood (USA)
C.J. had a great result last year at Snapper. Even he was stunned with the fifth-place finish, admitting during a post-heat interview that Snapper is not his best break. Here's the thing: I love the way C.J. surfs. He's smooth and powerful. He has some of the best style and technique in the business, but Snapper doesn't really care about those. You look at someone like Dane Reynolds who some people would say has a less-than-stellar style, but he produces the craziest moves in surfing. And Snapper is a platform for going nuts. It's very possible C.J. will get lost in the so-called flare-fest there, as it's a perfect little speedway for the whippersnappers. Come Tour stops like Fiji, Tahiti and even J-Bay with their long walls just waiting for power and fluidity, look for CJ to pounce. For now, sit 'em.
Matt Banting (AUS)
Matt has so much talent. He has all the tricks a kid could ask for with a killer style to boot. Coming into the 2015 season, the Aussie is the highest-rated rookie on the CT. He's had a very successful start to his career, qualifying for the elite ranks on his first go-round.
Banting was able to test the waters last year, getting into two CT events as a wildcard (the events at Snapper and the Quiksilver Pro France) and was dealt with pretty easily by the top seeds. Therein lies the challenge: Because of the competition structure, rookies always come up against the highest-ranked seeds during their first year on Tour, which makes getting a solid result difficult. Coming up against Mick Fanning in the first round, Banting will need to catch the best waves and surf to his strengths. If he tries to get in a slug-match with guys like Mick, his youthful surfing may look outmatched by the power of the vets.
So why the dark horse pick? Matt has a waterproof attitude that helps in a sport that delivers one winner per event. He seems freed-up and ready to rumble. Plus, he's young and growing by the day, which will help beef up those turns. In a quest to get revenge for the beatdowns he got last year, look for Banting to come in with purpose!