The Final Five: Jack Robinson and Johanne Defay
Apart from the remoteness of their respective Indian Ocean cribs - Margaret River and Reunion Island - the career paths of our No 2 surfers could not be in starker contrast. Defay has been a scrapper, with a long, unrecognised campaign on the Q'ey. We learnt through Make or Break that she struggled to find adequate sponsorship to do the tour, which I found utterly confounding. Babe, rips, charges, competitive, charming and engaging, and has proven to be a Top 10 surfer since family and fellow Reunion surfer Jeremy Flores stepped up to fill the corporate void so Defay could compete. It's just a better day of pro surfing when Johanne Defay is in it.
Robbo, of course, has had to endure no such period of impecunity. A prodigy from a young age, Jack was navigating healthy monthly contracts and buying coastal real estate when most kids were scrubbing dishes for a pittance. With his preternatural tuberiding and air skills he's been considered the light at the end of a long dark tunnel for Australian Men's pro surfing.
To be fair, that assessment of Robinson has proven to be largely correct, as have other industry assessments of fellow prodigies. In the last decade and a half, at least, the talent has been spotted early and the investments well made. Medina, Toledo, John John, Jordy, Dane, before that Slater: all cash cows for the Surf Industrial Complex. Only Italo slipped through the net on the Men's side. The Women's side is a different story. It's only now that female prodigies are being recognised to the same degree as males. We digress.
Johanne brings a middling record at Trestles to Finals Day. Her rookie year third place in 2014 being the high point. Since then, it's two 9th's and a 5th place finish. That reflects her position as slightly behind the front-running gals in terms of small wave performance. Defay does, or did, have a progressive element to her surfing, notably a nose-pick reverse, but that move has become rarer than rocking horse shit in competition and lacking “match fitness” for competition it's highly likely she will revert to type and engage in solid meat and potatoes power surfing.
Defay makes the Final Five on the strength of a solid back end of the tour year, particularly a first place finish at G-Land where her backside surfing was a cut above her peers in disconnected reef surf. Head high Trestles would be considered one of her weaker venues, lacking the punch and grunt required to make her basic repertoire stand-out. A counter-factual with the Finals Day at solid Cloudbreak for example, would see her come in as firm favourite, especially against the current Final Five.
Alas, it's highly likely a new crop of hungry teenagers next year with more competitive experience will render this year the last, best chance for a Defay World Title.
Possibility of a World Title: Puncher's chance
Robinson is in a similar predicament to Defay in that a Cloudbreak Finals Day (or any barreling reef break) would see the calculus radically shift in his favour. His small wave surfing has improved but as we saw on the Oz leg last year, it's still shaded by peers with more muscle memory of small, weak surf.
Jack has elements in his favour. Huge wins over Toledo at G-Land, and John John at Margies. Buzzer beaters galore, including against Medina at G-Land. There's no lack of self-belief, confidence, or composure in the Robinson oeuvre this year.
In a bitter irony not lost on surf fans but which will be totally ghosted by the WSL smoke and mirrors press machine, the better surfer across a range of conditions (JR) will be forced to scrap in small surf at a distinct disadvantage. Absent one bad read at Pipe against Chianca his result there would have been better. It seems oxymoronic to say he was the best surfer at Teahupoo given his poor result but the markers he laid down in heavy water there were highpoints of the contest year. Across the widest range of conditions this year, Robinson has been the best surfer in the world, even allowing for the absence of Medina and Florence, and he will probably lose at head-high Trestles.
Robbo's greatest chance is if they hold off for the slightly extra juice and complexity of the hurricane swell expected. Jack thrives in chaos. His hallmark this year has been an X-factor based on unpredictability. That would go someway to diminish the slight performance gap between him and Toledo, assuming he gets past the challenge coming from below.
Wozzle will be forced by audience pressure at somepoint to shift Finals Day from Trestles to somewhere more meaningful, allowing Robinson to claim a title that may be just out of reach this year.
Possibility of a World Title: Fair chance