It’s been 12 years since the passing of Northern Ireland’s own, the late great Alex Higgins and the tournament trophy up for grabs a week on Sunday since 2016 is rightfully named in the former two-time World Champion’s honour.
He would have been 73 today – such a shame he’s not around to watch this event go from strength to strength in his hometown of Belfast.
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The tale of two Higgins
Higgins started playing the game seriously at the Jam Pot in the early 60s which is a stone’s throw away (roughly four miles) to the venue at the Waterfront Hall. Since 2016 (bar the pandemic year of 2020), this over 2000 seated auditorium has hosted the first of the Home Nations events.
Last year, it was another Higgins, John who very nearly etched his name on the trophy. He led Mark Allen 8-6 in the final with a 32nd ranking title in his sight but with the support of his country on his side, Allen pulled it out from somewhere deep within for an emotional 9-8 victory. Higgins went on to lose in the next Home Nations final at the English Open, in another decider.
Trump's chances high
Since it’s inception six years ago, one man has made this tournament his own and that is Judd Trump.
Trump won this title three years on the trot in 2018, 2019 and 2020 and gave it a good go for a four-timer last year losing in the quarter-final. His win in the 2018 version was highly significant as it was the kick start to win 10 ranking events in less than two years on tour including his first World title and another triple crown, the invitational Masters both in 2019.
Here’s a stat for you: Since the 2018 Northern Ireland Open win, he’s played 85 best-of-seven matches on tour and won a quite remarkable 77 – a 90.5%-win rate. Staggering numbers.
The media and snooker fans think Trump has gone off the boil a touch in the past year or so and admittedly he has a little, but he was never going to keep up the domination and winning streaks that won him 14 ranking titles in three seasons. You just cannot contain it, it’s borderline impossible, ask Michael van Gerwen in darts.
Last season can hardly be called even an average one for the Bristolian. He won the Champion of Champions last November, made the final of the Welsh Open in early March, a week later won the inaugural Turkish Masters (included a sixth career 147 in the final) and then finished the season losing to Ronnie O’Sullivan in the World final.
Quite frankly most pros would be overjoyed with a season like that, and he also pocketed £647,000 in the process.
Jump forward to this season – he made the quarters in Germany losing to Barry Hawkins 5-3 then the last 16 of the British Open to a rejuvenated Allen 4-3. He played with plenty of freedom at the Hong Kong Masters losing in another decider to Higgins 5-4 and bagged two tons on the way. In just 13 matches and 49 frames won, he’s already struck nine centuries this season. In his first 13 matches last season he was on two centuries.
He firmly believes that when he’s on top form, no one can touch him. Call it arrogance all you like but he has a point. Go back to the 2019-20 season where he won six ranking titles, he was in peak form and looked untouchable at times. That sort of dominance hasn’t been witnessed since Ding Junhui won five titles in the 2013-14 season. You have to go back to Stephen Hendry in the 90s before that.
Since the Home Nations series was formed in 2016-17, he’s played in 23 of the events held. Four outright wins, three final defeats, three semi-final losses and five in the quarters. So, in only eight events he’s failed to make the last eight. A record nobody can match.
In the last three Northern Ireland Open’s Trump has been 3/1 in the outrights, scaring the bookies to death it seems. This year, he’s at 7/1 and I think that’s a terrific price given his record in Home Nations events or any event with best-of-seven up to and including the last 16. He hasn’t been this big for a long while – five to six years ago he was generally a player I liked to avoid as he was priced in the 11/2 region.
A stronger all-round player now, I think 7/1 is worth snapping up. He opens with old timer Rod Lawler, then talented Irishman Aaron Hill. It could be Tom Ford or Scott Donaldson in the last 32 – both out of form, even though Ford has a reasonable head-to-head record with Judd.
John Higgins looks the chief threat to Trump making yet another semi-final – the win in Hong Kong for the Wizard of Wishaw was his first win in 11 against Trump and a first of real note since September 2018 at the China Championship.
Trump looks to have a cosy route and a fourth Northern Ireland Open in five years might be on the cards for the Ace in the Pack.
Keep an eye on Allen
Talking of recent winners, I feel Mark Allen is primed for back-to-back titles here and is my second selection in Belfast at 14/1.
I’ve been so impressed with Allen this season, on and off the table. He’s lost four stone in weight which has given him a fresh emphasis in life in general. He really looks like he’s enjoying his snooker again. He made a funny quote about his weight loss remarking he didn’t now have his belly to rest on when delivering the cue! He’s probably had to adjust a little with his technique but when you are as talented as Allen, it must be just like getting used to a new job – you just adapt quickly and become comfortable with the aspects.
After a decent run at the Championship league to the semi-final groups, he had a shock defeat to amateur Farakh Ajaib in the European Masters (Ajaib did then back up this win beating Marco Fu at the venue then lost 5-4 to Trump).
He gained a bit of self confidence in a different cue sport, on the Ultimate Pool circuit in early September making the group final losing eventually to multiple times world 8 ball champion, Michael Hill. This was prior to slamming the snooker tour: “The schedule this season is a shambles, it’s a sorry state of affairs. This is the worst it’s been since Barry first took over in 2010 or 2011.”
However, the defeat to Ajaib was forgotten at the British Open in Milton Keynes at the back end of September and into this month. He played beautifully all week; it has to be said. You can hardly call it a soft draw either consisting of Stuart Carrington, Li Hang, Gary Wilson, Judd Trump, Mark Selby and Noppon Saengkham to make the final. Far from it! I liked the fact he beat all types of players on route.
Every match a toughie, but he came through in flying colours constructing five centuries and 16 further breaks of 50+. He was (wrongly in my opinion) the red-hot favourite (1/5) in the final against Wales’ Ryan Day and came up a cropper 10-7 though he still bagged two more centuries.
Fair play to Day, he was superbly solid in the final, something he’s not done enough of down the years. Perhaps Allen just ran out of gas because he certainly put everything and more into the previous six wins.
Now the monkey is off Allen’s back in winning this tournament, I can imagine the pressure is slightly off here and with such a positive display in Milton Keynes in his short memory, his frame of mind must be spot on, and he really could right the wrongs of that final here in Belfast again.
Allen has won back-to-back ranking titles previously – in 2012 and 2013 winning the World Open in Haikou, China. And made back-to-back finals in the 2017 and 2018 International Championship in Daqing, winning one and losing one so such a feat isn’t alien to him.
He plays a like-for-like leftie first up in Chang Bingyu who is very talented and could pose the Antrim man problems though Chang has consistency issues. I expect him to win and beat Chen Zifan in the last 64 then possibly onto rookie on tour this season, Wales’ Dylan Emery in the last 32 who is having a positive start to life on tour. You really would expect Allen to come through those three tests which would lead him to the last 16 where the competition will of course hot up in standard.
Allen doesn’t have anyone to fear in his current mood and I feel he could have been a little shorter than 14/1 given his draw. The Pistol is scoring with such ease and is very difficult to keep out the staking plan.
I was close to adding Zhao Xintong for a three-pronged attack on the title but his record in the best-of-seven formats and these type of events is a worry. Perhaps he’s due but he’s only made one Home Nations quarter-final from 24 appearances and might have a stronger chance defending his U.K. Championship next month in the new seeding format.
Recommended Outright Bets:
Judd Trump 7/1
Mark Allen 14/1