Snooker loopy How sport erupted into civil war

O’sul­li­van’s toxic row with supremo Hearn has left the sport in tur­moil, writes Jim White in York

The Daily Telegraph - Sport - - Front Page -

Snooker is em­broiled in a gath­er­ing civil war. In the se­date sur­round­ings of the York Bar­bican, as the UK Cham­pi­onship reaches its fin­ish­ing stages, fis­sure and dis­sent stalk the ta­bles. Never mind a break, the sport is be­ing threat­ened with a break­away.

Ron­nie O’sul­li­van, the pre­sid­ing ge­nius of the baize, is the man be­hind a new Cham­pi­ons Leaguestyle com­pe­ti­tion, fea­tur­ing an elite of top play­ers. Sig­nif­i­cantly, he in­sists his new tour­na­ment would be in­de­pen­dent of World Snooker, the sport’s govern­ing body. Af­ter his quar­ter-fi­nal vic­tory over Martin O’don­nell yesterday, he claimed he had al­ready been ap­proached by pro­mot­ers and spon­sors keen to be in­volved and that he had the back­ing of John Higgins, the for­mer world No1. He also added that he was not pre­pared to en­gage in any dis­cus­sion with the chair­man of World Snooker, Barry Hearn.

“There’s no point,” O’sul­li­van in­sisted. “I know what he’ll say.”

The root cause of “The Rocket’s” rev­o­lu­tion is the con­tract signed by the 128 lead­ing play­ers which re­quires them to par­tic­i­pate in an in­creas­ing num­ber of tour­na­ments. Al­though they are able to sit out any they wish, to do so can in­flu­ence their rank­ing po­si­tion.

Now 43, the world No3 feels the grow­ing spread of com­pe­ti­tions, par­tic­u­larly across the Far East, will lead to a di­lu­tion of qual­ity. He claims ex­haus­tion caused by the relentless rhythm of the cal­en­dar is the rea­son be­hind Higgins’s de­ci­sion to sit out this sea­son.

“This has never been about money, it’s about the way it is struc­tured,” he said. “Look at the way golf is run. It al­lows top play­ers breath­ing space, rather than dashing from one tour­na­ment to an­other. We don’t want play­ers burned out; pe­nalised for pick­ing and choos­ing.”

Hearn yesterday re­sponded with char­ac­ter­is­tic ver­bal panache.

“Enough is enough from Ron­nie. I know Ron­nie doesn’t like rules, but there are rules and he’ll have to fol­low them,” he said. “His break­away tour is too ludicrous to be con­tem­plated. Not one of 127 oth­ers would con­tem­plate do­ing any­thing with Ron­nie O’sul­li­van, be­cause Ron­nie O’sul­li­van’s agenda is for Ron­nie O’sul­li­van.”

While it might be a sim­ple mat­ter to dis­ci­pline O’sul­li­van, to ban him from par­tic­i­pa­tion, Hearn’s prob­lem was writ large all around the Bar­bican. Ev­ery­where in the build­ing, the posters an­nounc­ing the tour­na­ment were dec­o­rated with his face. In the mem­o­ra­bilia stand the T-shirts were ex­clu­sively Rocket-fu­elled. In the au­di­to­rium, as two quar­ter­fi­nals took place si­mul­ta­ne­ously, there was not a spare seat in the vicin­ity of the ta­ble on which O’sul­li­van was play­ing. The ad­ja­cent ta­ble, fea­tur­ing Joe Perry and Tom Ford, was played in front of rows of empty seats. O’sul­li­van

re­mains the game’s big­gest and most saleable as­set. He is the man the fans had come to see.

“The guy’s a ge­nius,” ad­mit­ted Hearn. “But ge­niuses are not the same peo­ple as you and I: they don’t have the same ra­tio­nale. I am try­ing to rea­son with Ron­nie but he’s mak­ing it harder and harder. We’ve all seen the bloke in the cor­ner of the pub putting the world to rights. There’s a big dif­fer­ence be­tween do­ing that and do­ing some­thing about it. Talk is cheap.”

Hearn was dis­mis­sive about whether the five-time world cham­pion had the re­solve to see his idea through. Par­tic­u­larly as two of the play­ers ru­moured to be sym­pa­thetic to O’sul­li­van’s break­away are the Chi­nese pair, Yu Delu and Cao Yu­peng, both re­cently given lengthy bans by World Snooker af­ter ad­mit­ting be­ing in­volved in match fix­ing.

“Ron­nie is fa­mous for do­ing the odd U-turn,” said Hearn. “He has in the past re­tired more of­ten than

Frank Si­na­tra. Now he’s about to do an eight-man break­away tour fea­tur­ing two play­ers who’ve just been banned for up to 12 years.”

What­ever it might lack in cred­i­bil­ity, how­ever, Hearn is well aware that the is­sue needs to be ad­dressed quickly.

“It is dam­ag­ing for the game for peo­ple to read about a break­away. It’s a word that tips you away from the sport. I will be talk­ing to Ron­nie about that. My door is al­ways open if he wants to talk over a cup of tea.” Not that O’sul­li­van seemed keen on the in­vi­ta­tion.

“I al­ways knew what Barry was go­ing to say. It’s only me, I am the only one who is moan­ing,” he said. “He’s say­ing I am self-in­dul­gent. That is not the case. I am do­ing it for the play­ers. I’m try­ing to help ev­ery­one be the best they can be.”

In a sport renowned for its gen­teel con­ven­tions, even as O’sul­li­van looks poised to re­tain his UK Cham­pi­onship ti­tle, in York the gloves are off.

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