After the incredible drama of the final qualifying round at Ponds Forge it’s straight over to The Crucible Theatre in Sheffield, the home of snooker, for this year’s World Snooker Championship which starts on Saturday and runs for its traditional 17 day ‘marathon of the mind’ until May 5th.
These are the best two weeks of the year to be a snooker fan. They are also both the best and most demanding times to be a snooker blogger or a journalist, the turnaround time between the end of the qualifiers and the start of the main event this year is just two days, which for me is too short a time to get everyone really talking about the event as much as its status merits.
But come Saturday morning, all my moans and groans about the schedule will be forgotten as I, like millions of others around the globe will sit and watch the Crucible curtain (well, wall, if you want to be pedantic) and a hush of anticipation descend on this great championship once more. All eyes, with due respect to the players on table 2, will be on one man. That man is the defending champion and undoubted king of the box office, Ronnie O’Sullivan.
This year, Ronnie is attempting something that only the other two great winners of the modern game have done, that is to win three World Titles on the spin. Only Steve Davis and Stephen Hendry (who won five consecutive titles) have done this before.
He is also seeking to join Steve Davis and Ray Reardon as a six-times champion, which will put him just one behind Hendry. His performances the last two seasons have understandably led to him being the shortest priced favourite for many years.
His season has been a little busier than last, which wouldn’t be difficult in fairness, he’s won The Masters, Champion of Champions and The Welsh Open in convincing fashion and has inflicted heavy final defeats on two of his main rivals, namely Ding Junhui and Mark Selby, in the process. He is without doubt the man they all have to stop.
So can anyone do just that? Ding has been in prolific winning form this season but the question marks still remain when he comes up against Ronnie, something he is seeded to do in the semi-finals here. Selby has not been the prolific winner of previous seasons and for me has been struggling to find form for some time, but he still manages to earn the tag ‘The Master of Brinkmanship’ from observers and remains a very tough opponent.
World Number 1 Neil Robertson, the champion four years ago, is many people’s idea of Ronnie’s main rival. They are seeded to meet in the final and Robbo will be wanting to banish Ronnie’s tag of invincibility on the biggest stage of them all. Judd Trump comes into this in a lot less media glare than usual, a quiet season by his standards may not be a bad thing in preparation for this, it didn’t do Ronnie any harm last year, but his form will have to pick up markedly if he is to stand a chance.
Then there’s old hand John Higgins, he is steadily getting back to form as the season draws to a close after cue troubles and will be hoping he’s peaking in perfect time, a championship win for him would draw him back level in world titles with his great rival O’Sullivan, there’s his incentive right there. A final between these two greats would be quite something.
Other contenders? Shaun Murphy, in great form at the moment and back in the winners enclosure. Last year’s runner-up Barry Hawkins, he’s made the final once, so why can’t he do it again? Stephen Maguire, considered by many to be the best player never to win the title. Marco Fu, always a danger and one of the most consistent players on the tour. Or what about Ali Carter? Beaten twice in Final’s by Ronnie and again seeded to meet him at that stage this year. Mark Allen perhaps? A great talent and a real battler on his day who fears nobody, or perhaps the reward for Stuart Bingham’s years of dedication to the sport he loves?
Joe shocked the world in ’86
When all is said and done, there are 32 players starting out who will all, to a more or lesser extent be thinking about holding the trophy aloft. We’ve seen surprise winners in the past of course, most notably Joe Johnson << watch that link, it will make you smile Graeme Dott and Shaun Murphy, Shaun coming all the way from the qualifiers to lift the trophy. Maybe it’s time for someone who has won through in the last few days at Ponds Forge to have the 17 days of their life and shock the world? It’s happened before.
Whoever you fancy for the title, my hope is that the snooker doesn’t let us down. Let’s banish all thoughts of burn-out, let’s hope all the top players, indeed all the players involved, bring their A-game to the table. If they do, we are in for a cracking championship.
Incidentally if you haven’t read my ‘Fate of the Favourites’ post, click here to see how favourites have got on at the Crucible since 1981, some of it might surprise you.
For ‘once a year’ snooker fans, I welcome you as ever along for the ride, just remember, this is a nice polite place where we discuss things like the re-introduction of flowers into the arena and why Chinese fans always sit at the top. If it’s pure venom or vehement allegations that someone is ‘at it’ that you want I think the Betfair snooker forum is still operational.
Also, be sure to check out other top sites devoted to the sport along the way, including Pro Snooker Blog and Inside Snooker, both shining examples of snooker’s thriving online community.
The terminally deluded can also follow my largely insane and unintelligible ramblings on Twitter for as long as you can stand them by clicking here and clicking follow in the time-honoured way. I’ll be making my way to the media scramble at the Crucible midway through the first week so expect some cutting insight there…
Now let’s have a look at the tournament. The betting has gone very very well this season, let’s see if we can finish off with a bang, though the fact I’m not recommending a bet on the player I and most people think will win it, means we may not end up with the champion again.
Where the players have met previously, click the match to go to the Head to Head statistics, courtesy of the brilliant Cue Tracker website.
Top Half: Quarter One:
Can Robin Finnish off The Rocket?
Ronnie O’Sullivan (1) v Robin Hull (Saturday 10am and 7pm)
The blue riband event of snooker starts with Ronnie up against Finland’s Robin Hull. In many ways this is the perfect draw for Ronnie, it’s a test, but not one that should result in defeat. Hull has been one of the outstanding players in the qualifiers and has got here through a grapple with Peter Ebdon, he is far from a ‘wet behind the ears’ rookie and has played here before. His career has been dogged by injury and health issues but when he’s right, he’s a very solid player. OK, let’s get this out of the way, I strongly fancy Ronnie to defend his title again successfully but he’s no sort of price to be backing now, the only reservation I have had is that I have thought all along that if he does lose, he’ll lose early on, possibly in his first match. But he has what I’d say is the perfect draw, a mediocre test first up, gradually getting tougher as each round goes along. Only a shock of Tony Knowles/Steve Davis proportions can put the skids on his title defence at the first hurdle. Robin isn’t one of the qualifiers that I’d have as a potential banana skin to O’Sullivan.
Joe Perry (16) v Jamie Burnett (Sunday 10am and Monday 10am)
These two met in a final qualifying match two seasons back and it was Perry who prevailed 10-8. Joe had a career slump a few years ago but now appears to be right back to his best, a solid season means he gets in as the 16th seeded player, 15th ranked in the world. Burnett was pegged back three times in his last qualifying match against Ben Woollaston but rallied each time when challenged. You feel that if he’s going to win here he’ll have to start well as I’d say if Joe starts the stronger he’ll keep his head in front. Joe is an experienced Crucible player and Jamie has played there three times in his long career and never won a match. Perry won’t be happy to be the possible next opponent of O’Sullivan but I don’t think he’ll be too disappointed with his first round draw.
RECOMMENDED BET: 2 points on Perry (-2.5 frames) at 13/8 with Stan James.
Shaun Murphy (9) v Jamie Cope (Saturday 2.30pm and Sunday 7pm)
It’s nice to see Jamie Cope back at the Crucible where he’s had some of his career highs. He’s another that has battled with health issues and is working through the effect an involuntary tremor is having on his game with a sports psychologist. He’s got 3 qualifying wins under his belt including a good win over Mark King in his last match so clearly the work is beginning to pay off. Shaun Murphy took an age to get back to the winners enclosure but two tournament wins at the back end of the season has put him firmly back in the mix as a potential threat to anyone. Back in 2003 these two met in the very first qualifying round when they were a lot younger, their careers have taken different paths and Murphy is without doubt now one of the game’s star names. I think Shaun is the main threat to O’Sullivan in this section and I can’t see him losing here.
Marco Fu (8) v Martin Gould (Tuesday 10am and Wednesday 2.30pm)
Twice these two have met at this stage and twice Gould has won, but with 10-9 in 2010 and a 10-8 the following year there has been very little in it. Gould has had a terrible season by his standards but something clicked at Ponds Forge and he breezed through. It could be argued that he was helped a little by the performance of his opponents but you can only beat what is in front of you and he did that in style. Marco is super-consistent these days and more often than not this season has been seen at the business end of tournaments including winning the Australian Open and losing in a decider in the final of the prestigious International Championship to Ding. On season form there is only one winner and that’s Fu, but The Crucible does strange things to players and having beaten him at this stage twice before, Gould has the psychological advantage going into the match and Fu has doubts. But I still just think that Marco will get his revenge, he’s in the form of his career this season so I’ll go for third time lucky for the Hong Kong cueist.
Can The Hawk swoop again?
Barry Hawkins (5) v Dave Gilbert (Tuesday 2.30pm and Wednesday 10am)
I think this match could be the unlikely classic of the round. Hawkins is back to the scene of his greatest career moments last season where he pushed The Rocket as hard as anyone has in the last two year’s Crucible events. He faces the talented Tamworth farmer Dave Gilbert, who scored consistently enough in his qualifying match against Jimmy Robertson to suggest his game is in decent shape. Hawkins has risen to number 4 in the world on the back of his runner-up slot last season and his subsequent form has been good, winning the recent PTC Grand Finals event in Preston and then understandably taking the decision to duck out of the China Open to prepare for this. His results have been steadily improving since March and I get the feeling he is a player that will come here in very good shape indeed with memories of last year still fresh in his mind. Gilbert is no pushover and has won matches at the Crucible before against the odds, he won’t be phased. I expect a high quality, close match, with Hawkins just shading it.
Ricky Walden (12) v Kyren Wilson (Monday 7pm and Tuesday 7pm)
‘Fearless’ is not a phrase that can be applied to all snooker players but at certain moments in time it aptly describes their demeanour and attitude at that precise point. Step forward Kyren Wilson. His run to here has been fantastic, his form and attitude impeccable and he was even impudent enough to say after qualifying that he wanted a crack at the champion. Instead, he faces Ricky Walden, who still hasn’t got a nickname. When Kyren beat Graeme Dott, the Scot was full of praise for him through gritted teeth and from what I know of Kyren (he was runner-up in the 2013 Snookerbacker Classic) he’s not the type to get phased easily. Ricky is another player whose results are improving again as the season reaches a climax and his run to the semi-finals last year make him some people’s dark horse. Neither of these two hang around and I don’t expect this to last very long, it could be the shock of the round, or would it really be a big shock given how well Wilson is playing? But again I’m going to side with the more experienced seeded player who I think will like playing another out and out attacker.
Mark Davis (13) v Dominic Dale (Wednesday 7pm and Thursday 1pm)
Two SWSA stablemates next up as Shootout King Dale takes on Dark Mavis. Mave hasn’t been in great form coming into this and the main reason he’s seeded so highly is really because of his early season and PTC performances so I don’t think he’ll come here in overly-confident mood personally. For me he is the most vulnerable seeded player. Dominic has lost his first round match at the Crucible now on his last five visits though it has to be said the draw hasn’t been very kind to him (Jimmy White in 2002, then Mark Williams, Ronnie and Judd twice), unlike this year. He has a solid win behind him over Andrew Higginson and his results of late are pretty decent. Up to now I have sided with the seeded player in all the matches in this half, but this is one where I fancy the qualifier to progress, Dale comes into this in the better form and the head to head is encouraging, I think Mavis might struggle here against a more confident opponent. I hardly ever back Dom but I just have a feeling about this one.
RECOMMENDED BET: 3 points on Dale at 13/8 with Betfred.
Ding Junhui (4) v Michael Wasley (Sunday 2.30pm and Monday 2.30pm)
China’s big hope is next up and prolific winner Ding has never looked more ready to mount a serious challenge on the world title than now. If Ronnie does lose before the semi-finals and Ding is still in it he will immediately go favourite for the title with millions willing him on to win. He faces black-ball re-spot winner Michael Wasley (‘Wazza’) from Gloucester, who I am sure is just delighted to be here after an epic road all the way from the first qualifying round. I’ve always said that while the World Championship remains at the Crucible, Ding won’t win it, but he now looks like he can, if he avoids O’Sullivan. Only the staunchest Wazza fanatic would tip him to win here, I just hope he enjoys the experience as he’s a really top lad, but I’m afraid he’s been handed a stinker of a draw.
The Master of Brinkmanship
Bottom Half: Quarter Three:
Mark Selby (3) v Michael White (Monday 10am and 7pm)
As I said in the preamble above, I think Selby has been struggling now for some time with his form. OK, he’s still posting wins regularly but it’s the manner in which he is winning which would be of concern to me as a supporter of his chances of being world champion. I don’t think he can possibly win this tournament playing the way he has been all season and it’s testament to his temperament that to most other players what he’s done, playing I’d say his C game, would constitute a great season for them. Michael White reached the Quarter Finals here last year and beat Mark Williams at this stage before dispensing with Dechawat Poomjaeng in a bizarrely one-sided match which I still struggle to comprehend on the back of his win over Maguire. White came back well in his qualifying match from being 6-3 behind to Matt Selt and will come into this believing he can cause another major upset. Whilst I’d stop short of saying that he will, I think a good look at the handicap markets might be the way to go as I can’t see Selby running away with it, let’s face it, he very rarely does.
Ali Carter (14) v Xiao Guodong (Saturday 7pm and Sunday 2.30pm)
Ever-present Ali Carter hasn’t lost a first round match at The Crucible since 2006 when he was beaten 10-8 by Stephen Lee and he tends to find his best form at the sport’s biggest and best championship having twice been runner-up to O’Sullivan. He has been handed the draw that most players might say they would not have wanted, Chinese danger man Xiao Guodong. Xiao made his breakthrough in the Shanghai Masters this season losing in the final to Ding and since then his results have been decent, but not amazing. In fact looking at it, the only player he has beaten from the top end of the sport this season is a below-par Stephen Maguire in Shanghai so this is a step up in class for him. He won his qualifying match convincingly but in truth had very little to beat against a player that I’m still amazed got that far. He’s a Crucible debutant up against a Crucible first round specialist, I don’t see there being a shock here and my only virtual raised eyebrow is at why the draw has pushed Ali’s price out to a backable one (50/1 from 33/1). The price on Carter to win this match is also for me, very backable.
John Higgins (11) v Alan McManus (Monday 2.30pm and Tuesday 10am)
These two compatriots have had some battles over the years, Higgins coming out (as he usually does) on top on most occasions. Angles is here by virtue of knocking out another of their mutual sparring partners Mark Williams, but believe me, despite Alan showing glimpses of form, that was not a match to write home about, it was absolutely awful in parts with the commentator even being forced at one point to ask whether it was a match between two club players or the World Championship. Higgins was last seen claiming to be (at last) fairly happy with the way his game is heading and when he starts making confident noises your best advice is to listen. He’s had trouble with changing his cue, he doesn’t like practicing at his house and he doesn’t like all the players coming round to play there. Generally he’s been a bit of an old misery this season (it’s age, we all have our off years). I have in the past predicted that his career is beginning to slide away, but as is my prerogative, I’m going to give him one last chance to prove me wrong. As a shameless nostalgist (def: A bittersweet longing for things, persons, or situations of the past – think that about covers it) there is nothing I’d like better than him and Ronnie in the final.
Stuart Bingham (6) v Ken Doherty (Saturday 10am and Sunday 10am)
Two more of the more senior generation battle it out as Ballrun Bingham faces Crafty Ken, the Darling of Dublin, they don’t make nicknames like those anymore do they? Ken did what he had to do to beat Poomjaeng to get here and the win included a run of 7 frames in which he made a 50-plus break in all of them, including a ninety-odd and a century, so there’s clearly life in the old darling yet. Stuart is another who comes here having missed the China Open but I’d imagine he’s spent the time he had spare sharpening up for this being the grafter that he is. He made the Quarter Finals for the first time here last season losing to O’Sullivan in a very one-sided match but he’s since beaten Ronnie in the UK Championship, I’d argue that he’s the only player this season to beat a fully committed and sharp Rocket, so that must give him confidence. I’d imagine he’ll be quietly pleased with this draw and for all Ken’s bags of experience, Stuart’s the one to be on here.
Judd and Shaun locked in battle last year.
Judd Trump (7) v Tom Ford (Tuesday 2.30pm and Wednesday 10am)
Leicester’s Tom Ford is here having seen off another Crucible regular Matthew Stevens in the final qualifying round, he faces Judd Trump who as recently as 2010 he hammered 10-3 in the qualifiers for this. Judd hasn’t won anything this season and has seen his ranking drop as a result, remember the euphoria when he became world number one for about a week? Thought not. In Judd’s short career to date however he does have some great Crucible memories, his defeat in the final to Higgins followed a superb semi-final win over Ding, his epic match with Carter the following year and his match with Murphy and ultimately Ronnie last year all live long in the snooker memory. I reckon that not being so much in the spotlight this season might just help him focus, they haven’t even put him on the programme this time. His love of ‘the good life’ (shiny cars/birds with air between their ears/overpriced designer goods/shit music etc.) is well known and I do think it has proved a slight distraction in the past but he also works very hard on the table, especially for big tournaments and that is something people don’t often give him credit for. I think he’s a dark horse in this and if I was going to pick a finalist from this half, it would be Judd.
Stephen Maguire (10) v Ryan Day (Saturday 2.30pm and Sunday 7pm)
The head to head between these two doesn’t exactly make pleasant reading for Ryan Day or his legion of fans in Wales. Other than their first meeting back in 2000 he hasn’t beaten Stephen Maguire in all events in 13 further starts. A lot of these matches were at Crondon Park which for me should be scrubbed off any meaningful head to head record but it still is quite strange that he hasn’t beaten him in 14 years, even there. Maguire is another who missed China, claiming to be ill, so he’ll be well rested for the job in hand here assuming he’s recovered. Plenty of people feel that Mags is the champion-in-perpetual-waiting and that he always tends to find someone to beat him just when you think he’s finally in the zone, for whatever reason. Day is a player who can be one thing or the other and on his day he can still mix it with the best. I can’t really get around that head to head stat in this match though and that has to be the deciding factor in the selection of Maguire, I’m not sure the bookies have yet cottoned on to how dominant Mags is in these fixtures given the odds on offer at the moment. Anyway, I think the winner will lose to Trump in the next round regardless of the result.
Mark Allen (15) v Michael Holt (Tuesday 7pm and Wednesday 7pm)
The gloriously self-admiring Michael Holt had a very good qualifying win over the in-form Jamie Jones with seven breaks over 50 in the process. He’s lost his last five first round matches at The Crucible and will be looking to do better this time around against Mark Allen who has lost first round as the seeded player for the last two years. It’s the first year in a while that Allen’s name isn’t being widely spoken of as a main contender in the event and perhaps that might help him a little and take the pressure off. Either way, one of these two will overcome an obstacle that they have got a little too used to falling at recently. A good performance in the World Open and some time off for Allen (who also withdrew from China) should mean that he comes to this one fresh, I can see this being a very entertaining match, as well as very attacking. If that’s the case I have to go with the player who I believe is the heavier scorer of the two and that’s Allen, who remains a player that is frustratingly not making the most of his obvious natural talent.
Neil Robertson (2) v Robbie Williams (Wednesday 2.30pm and Thursday 7pm)
Merseysider Robbie Williams potted a screamer of a black to beat Fergal O’Brien on a re-spot to claim his first date at The Crucible after a superb season. His reward is a tie against the World Number 1 and 2010 champion Robertson who came a cropper at this stage last year to Robert Milkins and sparked the ‘Burn Out’ debate as a result. These two met in the UK Championship and Neil ended up a comfortable winner on his way to the title playing some great stuff last December. He was last seen a couple of weeks ago in the final at China looking like death warmed up to me, he’s had a couple of weeks to recover but I think his long hard season may be beginning to catch up with him and that’s the last thing you want going into the biggest event of them all which calls for full focus under intense pressure from the word go. I’m a big fan of Robbo but I don’t fancy him to be champion this year and my finalist from this half would be Higgins, Trump or Carter, but he is a fierce competitor and I could be very wrong to write him off. He should win this match though to perhaps set up a super second round clash with Allen.
RECOMMENDED BETS (MATCH ACCUMULATORS)
5 point acca on Murphy, Trump, Higgins and Bingham pays over 5/4 at Apollobet. Add Selby for a 3 point acca pays almost 15/8 at the same firm. Add Carter, Hawkins and Maguire for 2 points pays over 7/1 at Betfred. Add Perry for 1 point pays over 11/1 at Paddy Power. 4 point double on Carter and Maguire pays just on 6/4 at Corals add Perry and Hawkins for a 2 point acca at 7/2 with the same firm.
RECOMMENDED BETS (EACH WAY OUTRIGHT)
2 points each way on Judd Trump at 12/1 with Ladbrokes. 1 point each way on John Higgins at 20/1 with Ladbrokes. 1 point each way on Ali Carter at 50/1 with Apollobet, 1 point each way on Shaun Murphy at 20/1 with Apollobet and 1 point each way on Barry Hawkins at 33/1 with Apollobet (all bets with Judd Money-Back Insurance – see below)
RECOMMENDED BET (OTHER)
2 points on Ali Carter to win Quarter 3 at 9/1 with William Hills.
I WILL BE POSTING FURTHER SINGLES/DOUBLES/SPECIAL BETS ON A DAILY BASIS THROUGHOUT THE TOURNAMENT.
You can view the outright odds at Apollobet here and bear in mind that if Judd Trump is champion they are refunding outright stakes to a maximum of 100 Euros. You can also view their match betting by clicking here.