On the webcast it played like a doubles surfing match. Zeke Lau and coach Jake Paterson Vs John John Florence and coach Ross Williams. Jake and Ross jostling on the stairs while Zeke and John faced off in the lineup. The cameras and the commentators gave each duo equal billing; Pottz going so far as to dub it a duel between Professor Paterson and Professor Williams. Of course the heat was anything but polite academic debate.

At Snapper Rocks John John was shown to be vulnerable when sucked into a paddle tussle. On that occasion Mikey Wright was the agitator and Griffin Colapinto the beneficiary of their round one ego battle. Griff grabbed the bombs while John John and Mikey paddled each other into the beyond.

Whether inspired by events on the Gold Coast or not it was apparent that Zeke and Jake Paterson showed up at Bells this morning with a clear plan to do whatever was required to rattle John John. In the comparison between John John and Zeke, Lau has one obvious advantage – he’s bigger and brawnier.

Normally physical dominance only matters in contact sports like football but it proved very useful when John John tried to paddle around Zeke in the opening moments of the heat. Zeke quickly turned into the human road-block, denying John John any hope of gaining access to the inside. It was aggressive, it was a little ugly, it was everything the priority system tries to avoid, but it worked. For those who love their surfing as a ruthless clash between chest-beating alpha males it was probably seen as a glorious exploitation of the rules. Some would perhaps like to see surfers flip a coin for first priority and focus on the artistry rather than the argy-bargy.

Having won the battle for the inside, Zeke was able to claim the prized wave he was looking for in the early stages of the heat. After almost getting hung up on the first turn he did the job on the back end of the wave – the finishing lay-back slash was a dramatic coalescence of finesse and power. Zeke, as Ronnie Blakey pointed out, wisely ignored the small transition turns that haven’t been scoring and aimed up on the serious sections that allowed him to stretch out the hulkish frame. A seven wouldn’t normally be enough to put John John on the ropes, but the wave proved even more crucial as the lineup napped. 

First set to Zeke and Paterson. Zeke was back in the lineup to play hustler before John had a wave. This time he elected to paddle around John John like a circling shark as a way of neutralizing the advantage of John John’s priority. Again, for lovers of the niggle and mind-games it was a ruthless display of gamesmanship. Some might have called it unsportsmanlike. On the stairs Jake Paterson was clapping on the inside. In the lully Bells conditions it proved to be a shrewd continuation of the psychological assault on John John.

As the world champion and the surfer frequently referred to as the best in the world, John John probably felt like he’d earned a little space in the line-up.

Zeke smashed through whatever invisible boundary John John had created and got right up in his grill. Despite later claiming he tried to laugh it off John John was obviously flustered. He didn’t lock in a score until past the half way point and he didn’t finish a single wave. The go-to lay-back slash flopped, and the two air-revs he attempted were a long way off completion. John John was never in the heat. Meanwhile Zeke claimed a second solid wave and again let the he-man turns do the talking. Zeke amassed a solid 13.07 total while John John didn’t make it to double figures.

Post heat, Zeke was unapologetic about his merciless tactics and adopted the tone of a commando sent to complete a mission. “ I wanted to get a good start and put the pressure on him early… I like to do big turns on big waves and I’m lucky that the conditions offer this. ”  Zeke made the semis last year and undeniably has an approach that suits Bells, however it’s unlikely that his strong man tactics will be as effective in the heats to come. The fully committed lay-back slash on the close-out section is perhaps his most potent weapon on the path to Bells glory.

Meanwile John John dropped the typically diplomatic tone and called out his fellow Hawaiian. “In a way it’s kind of lame … it’s probably better to win a heat with pure surfing,” he argued as Rosie boldly asked the hard questions.

It would be interesting to know how the heat was received back in Hawaii.

Who was in the Zeke camp and who was backing John John? Was this a heavy local rivalry in the making or was it all just sport? In the end that’s how John John saw it, conceding that he might be willing to adopt the same tactics if that’s what it requires. “Maybe I’ll try that next event,” he conceded with more than a hint of anger seeping out.  

One thing is certain John John won’t be allowed to rely on brilliance alone to defeat his opposition in future events. Zeke has burst the bubble John surrounds himself with and proven he can be rattled. If the rules continue to allow it the other competitors will be tempted to exploit the same loopholes against John John in future heats. It will be gloves off on the WSL. In the interim John will have a long chat with professor Ross Williams about how to deal with invasions of his personal space. John needs to figure out a mental battle plan fast if he wants to get back in to a good position on the Jeep leaderboard. For mine his two poor results to date have been the result of psychological chinks rather than surfing defects.