Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Premier League preview: Rocket targets ten

Ronnie O'Sullivan faces his stiffest test to continue domination of the Premier League this year.

The Rocket has almost claimed the annual invitation event as his very own with a record nine titles, and eight since 2001.

With his eyes on the prize again and a landmark tenth title up for grabs, he'll have to fight past the first format change of the competition since 2005, and more players vying for the trophy than ever before.

A summer shake-up means this year ten players will compete in the tournament and the format is more brutal than ever with the 25-second shot clock reduced to just 20.

Instead of a league format with matches played over six frames, this time round, each player will compete on four knockout nights with two best-of-five frame semi-finals and a final. Points will be awarded per frame won, before the tournament branches into its usual play-off conclusion.

That's not all for the changes with the deciding frames of matches switching to last year's ten-minute Shoot-Out format.

With plenty new to assess when the action gets underway, pretty much the only in consistency in the competition this year is the return of referee Paul Collier.

I've always been a massive fan of the Premier League action as it provides a welcomed change of pace to the rest of the events on the calendar, and tests players on their abilities to play instinctive snooker. The same cannot be said about some of the game's traditionalists who look down on the event. But we shouldn't forget the Premier League has been on the calendar since 1987, and has actually been established as one of the sport's most successful events.

It's always been a great money spinner for the sport's top stars and that's definitely the case this year with a handsome £60,000 up for grabs for the eventual winner. This comes at a price though with the £1,000 prize per frame win being scrapped. Again, while many people seem disgruntled by this change, I think it gives the tournament an extra edge with reward coming for the player prepared to push the boat out for the bigger win rather than pick up smaller reward for competitive defeat.

All these alterations means it will be a challenge in itself for reigning champion Ronnie to adapt and still continue his consistent success. But he remains the bookmakers red-hot favourite with reduced thinking time predicted to play even further into the favour of the game's most naturally-gifted player.

He loves the short format and remains the man to beat but a strong and wide field though, means his title charge is far from a foregone conclusion.

Despite losing to O'Sullivan 7-1 in last year's final, Shaun Murphy remains the most likely player to knock him off his perch. After winning the event himself in 2009, he's proved his ability to produce his best snooker across a number of formats. He's a solid match for anyone.

Then there's world number one Mark Williams and Masters champion Ding Junhui, who have both performed well in the past under this format.

Williams has made three finals without ever lifting the trophy while Ding has shown glimpses of what he's capable under shot-clock restriction and is renowned as a quick and prolific break builder anyway.

World and UK champion John Higgins has thrown his name back into the hat after absence from the event last season. His game has never been naturally suited to the Premier League format, but writing him off would be silly considering his tenacity.

Also in the field is Australia's Neil Robertson. The 2010 world champion has struggled to make an impact on the Premier League in the past but impressed advancing to the semi-finals of the competition last season.

Potting sensation Judd Trump returns for a second time with greater experience. He's a natural showman who will relish the television occasion and a real shout to give the Rocket a run for his money.

Jimmy White is back and will enjoy playing regularly back on the box while Ali Carter and Matthew Stevens complete the line-up and could be the dark horses.

A fleeting field of stars this season means the tournament has captured my imagination again, but still one of the tournament's primary advantages is that it gives some of the UK's biggest snooker-supporting regions a taste of competitive action.

That's none more so the case than this season's opening event in Skegness, a hotbed for the game in Lincolnshire. Robertson, White, Higgins and Stevens will play on the curtain-raising night, and I can't wait.

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