Neil Goulding’s Crucible Snooker column: The cream will rise to the top

Mark Selby - got as good a chance as any
Mark Selby - got as good a chance as any
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World Championship snooker is back in Sheffield and I’m looking forward to this year’s tournament more than any other.

Why? Well, arguably, this is the most open field in years. And, for someone whose covered the event for a decade, I’ve really got the buzz to see the drama unfold.

Five-time winner Ronnie O’Sullivan is looking to equal Steve Davis’ record of six crowns, but top names like Mark Selby, (defending champion,) Judd Trump, John Higgins, Shaun Murphy, Neil Robertson and Ding Junhui all fancy their chances. And to make things especially interesting, all 16 of this year’s qualifiers have three matches under their belts ahead of their first round.

It will be intriguing to see whether that added sharpness will help the qualifiers or hinder them having played so many frames prior to performing on snooker’s greatest stage. My feeling is that some of the top 16 seeds will really be tested, but ultimately the cream will rise to the top.

And for Crucible debutants Anthony McGill, Stuart Carrington, Kurt Maflin and Craig Steadman - all of whom had to win those three matches to make sure of their place at the venue - there’s bound to be some nerves. It’s also a special year for the game’s most prestigious event, one which lasts a gruelling 17 days and is a battle of the body and the mind. That’s because it’s 30 years ago to the month that six-time winner Steve Davis and Dennis Taylor contested the now legendary 1985 black ball final.

That epic match gripped 18.5million viewers and did wonders for the game. Standards have improved aplenty in the decades that followed that 18-17 victory for Taylor, but even ‘The ‘Nugget’ admits he finds it’s too hard to predict a winner.

“This year is the best year to sit on the fence,” said Davis. “Ronnie is the favourite, but there’s so many players who could win the title, it’s too hard to call the winner.

“Ronnie is a great player, but the other players are getting closer to him.”

A view shared by the World Snooker boss Barry Hearn: “It’s been the toughest qualification process in the history of snooker, so those 16 qualifiers walk out with their heads held high. It’s been brutal and horrible, but they’ve earned it. The qualifiers will go there hot having played three matches. It’s going to make the first round matches brilliant to watch.” I couldn’t agree more.