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Ronnie O'Sullivan gunning for sixth World Championship title

Ronnie O'Sullivan gunning for sixth World Championship title
© Reuters
Robertson, who won the World Championships in 2010, has returned to form of late.

When Cliff Thorburn ground his way to victory in the 1980 World Championships it seemed natural to assume that snooker would have to get used to its signature trophy sailing overseas for some years to come.

But Thorburn's gruelling triumph over Alex Higgins, which made him the first player from outside the UK and Ireland to win the title in the sport's modern era, did not spark the revolution snooker's hierarchy had perhaps been expecting.

Foreign false dawns scattered the subsequent decades. Thorburn's Canadian compatriot Bill Werbeniuk barrelled his way to a couple of quarter-finals, and another – Kirk Stevens – was two frames away from the final in 1984.

Cliff Thorburn
Cliff Thorburn, left, is one of snooker's great overseas stars (PA Archive)

Otherwise, Thorburn apart, for the remainder of the century the number of overseas players to reach the last eight remained sparse: of them, only the prodigiously talented but erratic James Wattana came equipped with any genuine hope of making a Thorburn-style breakthrough.

Despite reaching two semi-finals, Wattana largely failed to live up to the hype, and attention switched to the rising generation of Asian talent, led by Hong Kong's Marco Fu, who were said to be ready to launch a takeover at the top end of the game.

Instead it was Australian Neil Robertson who made the breakthrough, going where his illustrious predecessor 'Steady' Eddie Charlton had narrowly failed by sweeping to his first world triumph in 2010 with a swagger which anticipated many more.

Snooker – Betfred.com World Snooker Championships – Day Seventeen – The Crucible Theatre
Neil Robertson won his first world title in 2010 (Anna Gowthorpe/PA)

Again, it didn't quite happen. Bundled out by upstart Judd Trump in the first round the following year, Robertson has gone on to make only one semi-final since. Finally, however, the so-called 'Thunder From Down Under' shows signs of whipping up another, belated storm.

Robertson, picked out by O'Sullivan as one of three players most likely to contest this year's title – also including O'Sullivan himself and Trump – has emphasised his mastery of the long-form game in recent months.

An excellent performance in coming up slightly short against O'Sullivan at the Players Championships in Llandudno was followed by an emphatic 11-4 win over Jack Lisowski to win the most recent tournament, the China Open, earlier this month.

Ronnie O'Sullivan
Ronnie O'Sullivan has tipped Judd Trump to challenge for the world title (Steven Paston/PA)

Such stamina is not to be underestimated when it comes to the intensity of two weeks at the Crucible, and it is in this sense, if not his game-play, that he can be compared to some of the great overseas players of the past like Thorburn and his compatriot, Charlton.

O'Sullivan will start as overwhelming favourite to match the six titles won by Steve Davis and Ray Reardon, and he is probably right to predict that Robertson and Trump are best-equipped to stop him.

Mark Selby, recently usurped by O'Sullivan as world number one, has endured a dismal year by his own standards, crashing out of both the UK and Players' Championships in the first round, and will need a significant change in form to claim a fourth title.

Mark Selby
Former champion Mark Selby has endured a desperate year (Victoria Jones/PA)

Robertson apart, that much-vaunted overseas challenge is thin on the ground. Ding Junhui's chances of becoming China's first champion dwindle with each passing year, and the only other non-UK and Irish player in the top 16 is Belgium's 14th-ranked Luca Brecel.

Where Ding and Brecel have both had their moments as the game's next big thing, the far-eastern threat has remained relatively dormant, the swathe of promising young players reaching main draws not yet converted into sticking around to a tournament's business end.

Other potential breakthrough stars do not arrive at the Crucible in the best of shape. Mark Allen seems to have scarcely recovered from being dominated by O'Sullivan in last year's UK Championship final, and Kyren Wilson, such a promising semi-finalist last year, is also struggling for form.

Ding Junhui
Ding Junhui leads a faltering Chinese challenge (Steven Paston/PA)

Outsider hopes may rest once again with those who are best equipped to handle the gruelling format: former champion Stuart Bingham, who has won two ranking events this year, and the five-time semi-finalist Barry Hawkins.

As bright young things and overseas stars continue to founder, O'Sullivan strengthens his position heading deep into his fifth decade. Only Robertson, it seems, is truly capable of rising to the challenge and rolling back the years, to those sepia-tinted days when guys like the 'Grinder' reigned supreme.

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Ronnie O'Sullivan pictured in February 2016
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