The final tournament of the snooker season gets underway inside the iconic Crucible Theatre on Saturday when the World Championship starts. This 17-day marathon is sure to be compelling and has a dream schedule on the first day.
As is the tradition in this tournament the defending champion Mark Selby will start and finish his match on Saturday but alongside him on the cast list are the UK Championship winner, six-time winner of this tournament and two other former finalists.
Mark Selby vs Jamie Jones (Saturday 10am & 7pm)
The match on Table One in the morning and the evening on Saturday sees the title defence of Mark Selby getting underway. He will look to book a spot in the second round at the expense of the competent qualifier Jamie Jones.
A lot has been made of the wellbeing of the champion Selby and he has missed tournaments in 2022 to assist with that so all eyes will be on him to see how he is. There is a sense that the Crucible will be something of a safe haven for him and while that might be true, it is hard to see him being in top form. Defending champions rarely hit the ground running in this tournament because of the demands on his time in the lead up to it but Selby hasn’t had a competitive rep since the Welsh Open at the end of February. He should be rusty. Jones won’t be. He came through two rounds of qualifying to be here and had also made the quarter finals in Gibraltar prior to that so he carries plenty of winning momentum with him here. Whether he can get the better of Selby on a stage like this remains to be seen but I certainly see a way where he covers a 3.5 frame handicap, especially if he can eat into a chunk of the seven frames he needs in the first session while Selby is getting his bearings and finding his form.
Zhao Xintong vs Jamie Clarke (Saturday 10am & Sunday 10am)
While the world champion gets his campaign underway on Table One, Table Two will see the UK champion beginning his quest to win the biggest title of them all when Zhao Xintong takes on Jamie Clarke in an intriguing first round clash.
Xintong is capable of special snooker but at the same time he is still getting used to his new found fame and status in the game. This will be the first time he will have gone into a World Championship match as a favourite and expected to win and that carries its own pressures. I’m not saying the Chinese superstar won’t cope with that but I wouldn’t be surprised if it allows Clarke to stay closer than he might be expected to be. Clarke ground out wins in the qualifiers and now he has nothing to lose. He has been a first round winner here before and could win this. This is a match I’m very interested in but I’ll watch the first session and assess where we are and maybe get involved ahead of the conclusion.
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Ronnie O’Sullivan vs Dave Gilbert (Saturday 2.30pm & Sunday 2.30pm)
One of the pick of the matches in the first round sees Ronnie O’Sullivan beginning his quest for a seventh title on Saturday afternoon when he meets the Championship League winner from earlier in the season in Dave Gilbert, a player who openly admitted after qualifying that he wanted nothing to do with the top four in the first round.
Gilbert didn’t get his wish and will take on arguably the best there has ever been but he doesn’t have a lot to lose and if he can get into the match early on then there is no reason why he can’t put a serious challenge down to O’Sullivan. The problem Gilbert has is he is a cueist that the Rocket rates and respects and he tends to make sure he does a job and plays his best against those kind of players so the qualifier is likely to be bang up against it in that regard. The best time to play O’Sullivan in this tournament is the first round. He has slipped up to some unlikely victors in the past which will give Gilbert hope but either way I’m happy to leave this one alone and take a watching brief.
Barry Hawkins vs Jackson Page (Saturday 2.30pm & Sunday 7pm)
The afternoon session over on Table One will see the former finalist Barry Hawkins starting out on another Crucible campaign when he takes on the Welsh debutant Jackson Page who will be entering this tournament with little to lose having qualified from the very first qualifying round.
That could make Page dangerous because we know he can pot balls from anywhere so if he settles at this iconic venue then Hawkins might get a tougher match than he might have wanted. In saying that, Hawkins loves this place and in 2022 his form in the bigger and better tournaments in particular has been very strong. He made the final of both The Masters and the Players Championship and his experience in matches of this length should be significant. I’ll keep an eye on this match in the hope of a bet throwing itself open to us for the final session but initially I’m happy to give this one a miss.
Shaun Murphy vs Stephen Maguire (Saturday 7pm & Sunday 7pm)
While the 2021 champion Mark Selby is closing out his first round match on Table One, the man he beat in the final will be on show on Table Two when Shaun Murphy takes on a familiar rival in Stephen Maguire in a match which begins on Saturday evening and concludes on Sunday evening.
Murphy was in absolutely horrendous form at the beginning of this season but as we ticked into 2022 there were signs of life in him at the German Masters and Welsh Open and then finally he had a good run at the Turkish Masters. Maguire has had an equally low key season this term but having been forced to qualify for this tournament he did so in fine style and will be looking to make an impact now that he is here and end this bonkers run of seven first round defeats in nine years here. These two are both class acts so I’m expecting a tight match here. Their last meeting went the distance at the Welsh Open and I wouldn’t be surprised if they are playing a deciding frame out on Sunday evening. I certainly expect them to reach frame 17 though so I’m happy to be on over 16.5 frames here.
Back J.Jones (+3.5 frames) to beat M.Selby for a 3/10 stake at 2.10 with Coral
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Back S.Murphy vs S.Maguire – Over 16.5 frames for a 3/10 stake at 1.75 with Boylesports
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