After the dust settled at Pipe with Yago Dora double qualifying on both the CT and QS tours, Lennox Head’s Stuart Kennedy found himself as the first reserve for the 2020 CT. Kennedy finished in 12th spot on the QS ratings, agonisingly close to 11th placed surfer, Morgan Cibilic, who qualified.  

Kennedy would have been the first one to be called up to surf on the Championship Tour if a surfer withdraws from an event due to injury but the WSL has decided to change the goalposts this time, which is no surprise as they have done so previously.  Seeking to clarify the situation I approached the WSL and a WSL Spokesperson responded: "This season, the men's CT will have both Mikey Wright and Leonardo Fioravanti competing for the permanent (2nd Injury Wildcard Spot) during the 3 first CT events in Australia. After Margaret River, the surfer with the better CT ranking will continue, the other will become the 1st WSL Replacement. This surfer will be the only WSL Replacement this year as we will have only 1 spot, so we will not have 3 names like in the previous years. Neither Stuart Kennedy, Willian Cardoso nor Jesse Mendes will be “named” WSL Replacements this season.” A wildcard surf-off between Mikey Wright and Leo Fioravanti certainly sets the scene for an interesting WCT sub-plot and one senses this was the main agenda for the WSL. The consolation prize for Wright and Fioravanti is obviously being the first option as the Replacement surfer.    

This still gives Kennedy some hope if there are injured CT surfers early in the year but the sting in the tail for Stu comes from the WSL rule book that states: ”If the Season Replacements have not received a start in the first 5 CT Events of the Surfing Season the following applies for that Season Replacement spot: if the Season Replacement was selected as a QS Surfer, the Surfer with the highest QS Ranking at the time of the relevant CT Event or a former Season Replacement from the current Surfing Season (at Commissioner Office discretion) will be the new Season Replacement; (ii) for Season Replacements who were selected as a non-QS Surfer, they will be replaced as determined by the Commissioner’s Office.”  That means that Kennedy, Cardoso or Jesse Mendes only have an opportunity to get called up in the first five events as injury replacements based on their 2019 efforts. After the Oi Rio Pro the WSL will look at the top-ranked WQS surfers as potential replacements, based on their results after the first three Challenger Series events.

This adds another degree of drama to the heavily hyped WQS Challenger Series because good performances will move surfers closer to a WCT berth as a potential replacement surfer.

However, while the rule tweak may be exciting for some it’s undeniably heartbreaking for the likes of Stu Kennedy, who will find it much tougher to get a look in at a WCT. Under the new system, it’s increasingly less likely that we will see a repeat of the 2016 scenario where Sebastian Zietz qualified for the 2017 WCT while surfing as a replacement surfer.

As they seek to improve their ratings, the WSL are obviously striving to find a balance between what’s fair and what offers the most entertainment value for fans. There will always be winners and losers when the rules shift, but at some point, it seems the WSL needs to lock in a clear set of rules relating to wildcards and replacement surfers and stick to them so that the surfers and the fans know exactly what the parameters are.