We are now under 10 days and counting. The launch of another Tour year is upon us, there of course has already been solid action on the WQS front, but the major league is about to enter the fray for the season launch of the Foster’s Men’s World Tour and the ASP Women’s Tour. Final preparations are in motion, the road is now blocked off and a mini-city is being erected at Snapper Rocks in readiness for the 2007 Quiksilver Pro and the Roxy Pro.

With the WCT ranks bristling with major talent, we are in for one heck of a season, as the leading edge of an exciting new generation of surfers, both male and female, step up for their rookie debuts. Leading the way in their respective divisional challenge will be France’s Jeremy Flores and Australia’s Stephanie Gilmore.

These two set the world ablaze with sensational years on the WQS, the reward for stellar seasons not only a WCT berth but good seeding to go with it. As event wildcards or Trials winners they both have WCT experience; however there is a world of difference between coming up against the #1 or #2 seed or starting out seeded in the middle of the pack.

Not that these obstacles have hindered Gilmore’s progress, she has twice won Trials and gone on to win the WCT Main Event. She again has come out firing, winning the 5 Star rated Roxy Pro on Phillip Island recently, but you can bet the nerves will be there on debut day, it is the moment the big question about belonging arrives.

It is one thing to cut a swathe through the field as a happy go lucky wildcard with not a sliver of pressure on the shoulders, another to take ones place alongside the likes of Layne Beachley, Chelsea Georgeson, Melanie Redman-Carr and Sofia Mulanovich for a year long circuit.

In 2006 Jeremy Flores secured the WQS #1 ranking, now the big step-up in class awaits him, as it does a dozen or so fellow rookies. Jeremy has plenty of WCT experience, he has surfed Hossegor, Reunion and several other locations courtesy of wildcards, but coming up against top seeds Kelly Slater and Andy Irons when their mood is focussed on each other is a mighty wall to climb, and you can bet that those experiences are locked away in Jeremy’s memory bank for future reference.

The guys that took up residence in the Top 10 on the 06 Fosters Men’s World Tour all put in splendid campaigns, and will again be the ones to watch. In claiming an 8th World Crown Kelly Slater climbed into a rarefied atmosphere, a space that he owned so emphatically that in the end he was only competing against his own personal best record for both winning margins and Top 3 finishes, snaring 8 out of the 10 he contested.

Andy did fire up, he came home with a wet sail to eventually dominate at Pipe, but with only four Top 3 results it was, by his standards, a pretty ordinary year. The guy has such a phenomenal finishing kick but it’s been lacklustre starts that have held him out the past two years.

While the Kelly/Andy show takes top billing, a man on man Final between the two always a mouth-watering proposition, they are sure not to have it all their own way in 07. Mick Fanning has finished #3 the past two years, winning multiple CT events but not quite cracking Kelly or Andy’s consistency.

His sparring partner Joel Parkinson, although finishing outside the Top 5 at #6, was also in seriously good form toward the latter end of the tour. Both would be looking to carry that form into 07, especially with the slate clean going into the Quiksilver Pro on home turf.

Taj Burrow came flying out of the gates last year, stalled through the South Pacific leg then consolidated with a bunch of podium finishes mid year. If he can harness all that mighty energy and focus it on a persistent reach for excellence, the West Australian legend could well be in the hunt coming into the home stretch.

And what a rookie sensation Bobby Martinez was, a two time winner in his debut season, the Californian goofy footer looked right at home on the Foster’s Men’s World Tour. Like his mates Fred Pattachia and Bruce Irons, the hard years spent on the WQS melted away once Bobby eased into the Major Leagues.

CJ and Damien Hobgood also loom as potential contenders. 2001 World Champ CJ had a quiet year in 06, #16 the lowest he has finished for a long while. The guy is so deadly out there in reef land, especially Chopes, and with the Rip Curl Search WCT on this spitting left reef in Chile CJ will be right in his element.

Damo had another solid dig, at #7 he just lacked a wee bit of consistency to challenge for a Top 3 ranking, and although he will miss the happy hunting grounds of Fiji, where he would have been defending champion, Damien has developed an all-round approach that serves him well from Trestles to J/Bay, from Bells to Pipe.

There are many who could emerge from the pack, Bruce Irons and Fred Pattachia are danger-men, Tom Whittaker has stepped up a few notches at #8, and a host of exciting young rippers are joining Jeremy Irons in one of the strongest rookie packs in memory.

The Women’s Tour is no less intriguing. We have tour stalwarts Layne Beachley, Mel Redman-Carr, Megan Abubo and Rochelle Ballard defending the fortress against a solid pack of challengers, led by deposed World Champion Chelsea Georgeson, 2004 World Champion Sofia Mulanovich, Rookie of the Year Jessi Miley-Dyer, rising superstar Stephanie Gilmore and the talented duo of Rebecca Woods and Silvana Lima.

For the established guard it’s not exactly circle the wagons, what with Layne nailing a 7th World Crown and Mel Redman-Carr totally dominating the first half of the 06 Tour, but ground has definitely been made in the bigger picture of a new look Top 17. Even though much deserved hype surrounds the WCT debut of Stephanie Gilmore, we have a sneaking suspicion that Chelsea and Sofia are going to come out guns blazing.

It’s okay for Layne, who although still ultra competitive does have the luxury of having seven trophies on the mantelpiece, whereas Chelsea and Sofia are still rising to a career peak, so the Stephanie factor is probably impacting them more.

There really is a host of young girls that are ready to slipstream the likes of Stephanie Gilmore, Jessi and Rebecca. This truly is a watershed year for the girls, a titanic struggle for superiority is going to raise the performance bar by attrition, the established order rising to meet the onslaught of a hungry new breed that seriously carve up all manner of waves.

Get set, the greatest show on surf is about to unfurl its colours.

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