Challenger series ignites

Callum Robson on his way to winning the Snapper Challenger opener. All photos WSL.

It’s been a long time since I sat riveted to a qualifying series surf comp.

Maybe a short check in online to see what conditions were like and who was making a noise, but nothing like this week’s opening to the WSL Challenger Series at Snapper Rocks.

After a long and exciting afternoon in front of the box watching the Challenger finals day live up to its name in extremely challenging waves on the Superbank, I went to the laptop to see what the trolls were saying, and not much of it was good.

I had to wonder if these people had been watching the same event I’d just watched.

Even some old and accomplished surfers of my acquaintance were wailing about the coverage being so boring they had to switch it off, and yet they also seemed to have watched enough to disagree with many of the heat results. Go figure.

But if the bloggerati had issues, the commentators certainly didn’t.

The 1978 world champion and former ASP boss Rabbit Bartholomew is one of the best analysts in the game and he’s done a fantastic job on the WSL commentary team throughout this Australian season, but I’ve rarely seen my old mate Bugs as excited as he was while he talked us through events at Snapper.

Strapped in and firmly gripping the armrests like he was on Space Mountain at Disneyland, he was clearly enjoying the ride. And this was just a qualifier!

The frequently critical online surf media also got the vibe.

Nick Carroll wrote on Surfline: “The pandemic re-arranged many things in our surfing world, and one of those small re-arrangements was the vanishing of the championship tour from Snapper Rocks. So much fuss at the time!

“Yet watching this year’s Challenger begin to roll, you gotta wonder if it might have all been for the best – 160 super-psyched surfers from around the world, all showing up at once during maybe the prettiest swell of the year, ripping it up and just hanging out.”

Of course, by finals day it wasn’t quite the festival of fun that Nick describes, but for my money the difficult conditions only added to the drama, creating entertainment we have only ever glimpsed at qualifying level before, as Swellnet editor Stu Nettle noted: “After that event it feels like the Challenger Series could perhaps reach its intended potential.

“That is, not just a way of deciding who qualifies for the championship tour but as a series in its own right, with fans tuning into each comp, following the rankings, and feeling invested in it the way they do for the CT.

“That was the original goal for the WQS back in the day, yet it was never realised. Second-tier and lower comps were only of interest to competitors and their immediate family.”

Well, not any more. Maybe.

As Stu pointed out, Snapper Rocks is one of the best quality venues of the eight-event series. It finishes at Haleiwa with France and Portugal offering some autumn potential along the way, but we still have to struggle through Rio, Huntington and this week in Manly to get there.

Not that Manly can’t produce quality surf. I’ve seen good events there over the years, going back to Surfabout ’78, when North Steyne looked like a sand bottom Pipeline, but I’ve also seen Kelly Slater getting bundled out of a QS by a couple of anonymous Brazilian kids in complete rubbish a couple of years ago.

Fickle beach breaks could be the Achilles heel of the Challenger Series, but you’d have to say it’s off to a very good start.

I’m sure by now interested readers will know who the stars were, but a couple of observations.

The women’s final was a great battle between next-gen superstars in California’s Caitlin Simmers and NSW’s Molly Picklum. Fighting a vicious sweep all heat long, they traded wave for wave down to the buzzer and it could have gone either way.

They are the future of women’s surfing, and the interesting back story is that Pickles won her spot on tour this year courtesy of Caity, whose family decided to knock back 2022 qualification for the teenager.

Now, following Molly’s failure to make the mid-season cut, they’re both battling it out on the Challenger tour for 2023 qualification, which seems a mere technicality.

In the men’s, Callum Robson from Evans Head continued his charge into the record books with a convincing win over Sheldon Simkus, who also has a great shot at qualification this series.

But Californian semi-finalist Nolan Rapoza caught my eye. This guy combines the backhand power and style of an Occy with the general wackiness of longboarder Jared Mell, whom he resembles just a little. What an entertainer!

FOOTNOTE: The 2022 Australian National Titles calendar gets underway at Bells Beach next weekend when the Australian Indigenous Surfing Titles returns to Wadawurrung Country.

Noosa’s Kaiden and Landen Smales missed out on their debut in the Indigenous Titles last year when Covid shutdowns got in the way, but I’m sure the lads will be giving it their best shot in the chilly Vic waters this time.