Nick Carroll: Is This It for Australian Men’s Pro Surfing?

18 Jun 2019 18 Share

Nick Carroll

Senior Writer

Two time World Junior Champion Jack Freestone at the Margaret River Pro recently. Photo: WSL/Dunbar

Two time World Junior Champion Jack Freestone at the Margaret River Pro recently. Photo: WSL/Dunbar


Forget the World Title

Well it’s nearly halfway through the men’s WSL CT year, and one thing is super clear. If you’re an Australian surf fan, forget the world title. Maybe even forget anyone in the top five.

As of today, heading into the Oi Rio Pro, Ryan Callinan is Australia’s top ranking male pro surfer. Ryan is ranked seventh in the world. He’s killing it, but he’s nowhere near the lead.

Neither is anyone else. Julian Wilson’s at 13th, Owen Wright’s at 14th. Big Wade Carmichael, the people’s champ, is 16th.

Only five of the eight Australian surfers in the CT are even in the re-qualifying mix right now.

Another four – Matt Banting, Jack Robinson, Jordy Lawler and Connor O’Leary – are in with a shot at QS glory, though it’s way too early to say how those rankings will play out yet.

With the departures of retired superheroes Mick, Joel, and Taj, and a classic post-second-place slump from JW*, a long slow down-curve in our national fortunes has suddenly been exposed.

It’s as if a Band-Aid’s been ripped away, but the reaction’s been pretty muted so far. There’s a lot of denial. My old mate Maurice Cole has stuck it to Surfing Australia a few times, on the basis that as our National Governing Body, they’ve spent quite a few million dollars in recent years on flash training facilities and trips overseas, while presiding over this decline.

Others I’ve heard bemoaning the seeming loss of “mongrel” in the ranks these days – that young people have it too good, and aren’t willing to get down and competitively dirty Australian-style, the way they apparently used to. Hipsters! Etc.

Still others seem a bit shell-shocked. How can this even BE?? Can you even HAVE a world title race without an Australian?

Well yep, as it turns out, you can. Because we have.

Let us gently turn the page back to 1995, when Matt Hoy was Australia’s top ranking male pro surfer. Back then, in an amazing feat of symmetry, Hoyo — just like his lil Merewether beachmate Ryano today – was ranked seventh.

Hoyo was our best man in 1996 as well, coming home in eighth. He was flanked by BL and Shane Powell (8 and 10) in ’95, and Michael Rommelse and Todd Prestage (10 and 12) in ’96.

It was an epic effort from Matt. There were events where he was a deadly threat. But man! Australia was at least as far off the men’s world title then as we are now.

The reason why was pretty goddamn obvious, at least in retrospect. A dominant Aussie generation had retired, and other people were just better. Kelly Slater and his mates had subverted the dominant paradigm.

Maybe it’s that simple now too. A dominant Aussie generation has just retired, again. JJF, Italo, Gabriel and co are just better. Their intensity has changed the game.

Maybe that’s a GOOD thing. Downturns are inevitably followed by comebacks. In the mid-to-late ‘90s, in response to Hoyo’s plight, the Australian surf company HQs went a tiny bit nuts. They hired the best team managers they could find, and built up enormous, hundred-strong teams of young surfers. They put funding into the then-budding Australian Junior Series. They head hunted the best guys and paid them solid money early, backing it with a lot of stuff designed to bring out their skills: surf trips, Hawaiian winters, training camps with their top international pros, the lot.

By the early 2000s this had helped create a formidable generation of surfers, every bit the equal of their forebears: not just Joel and Mick and Taj, but Willsy, Trent Munro, Lee Winkler, the Patersons, the Macdonalds, Margo, Sasha Stocker, Mick Campbell, Troy Brooks, Rick Lovett, Nathan Webster, Beau Emerton, the Hog, Tom Whitaker, Luke Hitchings, and a heap of others. All with big Louie Egan and the still freakish Occ at their head.

Julian and Owen, along with the evergreen Ace, are really the last of that crew.

But in the past decade, the surf industry has gone into minor reverse, and those companies have had to pull their expenditure way back. Millions of dollars have receded. Teams have been decimated. The Junior Series has deflated. Managers have moved on, become agents or pro level coaches.

Aussie boys are going to have to look elsewhere for inspiration. Fortunately there is a source close at hand. Here’s another parallel between the ‘90s and now:

In 1995 and 1996, the USA’s peerless Lisa Andersen was the world women’s champ. But. Second, third, fourth and fifth – six of the top eight both years – were Australians. Let’s name them: Layne Beachley, Pauline Menczer, Neridah Falconer, Lynette MacKenzie, Kylie Webb, Michele Donoghue (’95) and Trudy Todd (’96).

Whatever ailed the boys then, the girls weren’t afflicted. Same as they haven’t seemingly been afflicted since. Indeed, since Hoyo’s time, Australian women have won 14 world titles to the boys’ five.

Now you know why I’m saying Steph’s the best.

*Second is a bastard. In the 43 year history of the world tour, surfers have only gone up from second four times. The vast majority go sideways or down, the average decline being to seventh. Just why this is we’ll leave you to guess, though we gotta say, from observation, coming second is pretty much as much work as winning, without any of the subsequent glory. If Julian is taking time to re-set in 2019, good luck to him.

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