The Jester can hold court again at Crucible as Mark Selby bids for three in-a-row
AFTER the glitz and glamour of Augusta and Aintree, the wonderful sporting month of April shows no sign of slowing down, with the focus about to switch to the bright lights of Sheffield.
And there will be every bit as much colour on display at the Betfred World Snooker Championships, which get going on Saturday morning at the Crucible Theatre.
Reigning champion Mark Selby will kick the main event off against a qualifier, whose identity will not be known until tomorrow morning.
The qualifying rounds are played to a finish today, so the waters are muddied somewhat with a host of talented players still fighting for their place in the 32-man field for the Crucible at the time of writing.
It is a certainty that a number of the top 16 players, already assured of their place, will be handed stinking draws in the first round proper, but it is also fairly safe to assume that it will be a member of that top 16 who will have their hands on the trophy come May Day Bank Holiday Monday.
And the fact that those top players all know their seeding does make it slightly easier to predict the outcome, with some happier than others about the section of the draw they find themselves in.
As top seed, Selby is scheduled to take on number 16 Mark Allen in the second round, and it would be hard to fancy the Antrim man if that clash comes to pass, although an outright price of 28/1 is perhaps on the big side for a man who won The Masters as recently as January.
While Selby is the top seed and defending champion, he isn't the favourite, with that honour going to the genius that is Ronnie O'Sullivan.
At this time each year I find myself writing that O'Sullivan can win the World Championship if he turns up in the right frame of mind.
Yet that is a massive ‘if' and it makes me shy away from recommending a bet on him at a best-priced 9/4 with Paddy Power.
The ‘Rocket' is the most talented player in any event he shows up for and has had a stunning season, winning five ranking titles, including the UK Championship for the sixth time.
Yet he is always capable of throwing in a stinker when he doesn't quite fancy it, especially at the Crucible, where the long, drawn-out nature of the matches, and the entire event, are seemingly no longer to O'Sullivan's liking.
He hasn't passed the quarter-final stage in the last three seasons and there is more than enough to put me off a bet at those skinny odds.
And I make no bones about the fact that Selby simply has to be the man to beat in his favourite playground.
The ‘Jester' has won three of the last four renewals and looks so at home on the big stage, when the long format plays to all his mental strengths.
Selby knows that O'Sullivan will not lie in his path until the final, and at that stage would clearly fancy his chances of winning a best-of-35 battle in any case.
The Leicester man hasn't had a great campaign, with early exits a recurring theme, but he found his form to win the final warm-up event, the China Open, just as he did last season, and he will be extremely confident about being the first man to make it three world titles on the bounce since Stephen Hendry in the 1990s.
At 4/1, Selby looks on the big side to me and has to be the man to back.
Of course, quality players will lie in wait, notably Judd Trump and John Higgins, who are both also in the top half of the draw, and the latter might be worth a bet to win the second quarter when those odds are finalised.
However, the focus in terms of each-way bets should probably be on the bottom half, where O'Sullivan looks a more vulnerable front-runner.
And I can't get away from the claims of Crucible specialist Barry Hawkins, whose odds are again very appealing at 28/1 (Bet Victor).
The bookies routinely overlook just how good Hawkins is, presumably because he is not a flashy player, while the fact he had a difficult first half to this season also partly explains the prices on offer.
He has found good form at just the right time, reaching finals at the Welsh and China Opens in recent weeks and also really relishes the Crucible challenge.
Since his surprising run to the final in 2013, when O'Sullivan took the crown, Hawkins has reached three more semis and while he'd need to get back to the decider to get an each-way pay-out, there is no doubt he is capable of that.
Finally, another player who could ruffle a few feathers if he's in the mood is Mark Williams.
It is 15 years since the Welshman won his second world title, and at times he has looked disinterested, but Williams has climbed back to seventh in the rankings this term.
The veteran also has the ability to turn anyone over on his day, and while a possible quarter-final with O'Sullivan is perhaps a stumbling block, at 20/1 with Paddy Power he is well worth taking a small punt on to produce a third winning act at the most famous theatre in snooker.
Mark Selby, 4/1 (Ladbrokes)
Barry Hawkins, e/w, 28/1 (Bet Victor)
Mark Williams, e/w, 20/1 (Paddy Power)
CARL Frampton will attempt to relight the fire under his career after a difficult year when he walks out to the SSE Arena ring to take on four-weight world champion Nonito Donaire on Saturday night.
Things have stalled a little for the Belfast boy on the back of his only career defeat to Leo Santa Cruz in Las Vegas last January.
And the ‘Jackal' is aware he needs a big performance against a wily competitor in Donaire if he is to push back towards the big-time and a possible summer fight at Windsor Park.
It has been well documented that a major upheaval behind the scenes has occured since Santa Cruz avenged his earlier New York defeat to Frampton, who is now trained by Jamie Moore.
Their first outing as a partnership ended in a rather flat points win over Horacio Garcia in November but with another training camp – which by all social media reports has gone very well – together, Frampton will be confident of ramping things up a level.
He won't get things easy against Donaire, who has only been stopped once in a 42-fight career, but at 35 the feeling is that he is on the way down and the younger Frampton should be able to control the fight.
The bookies certainly see it that way, and a home victory is no bigger than 1/6, while a Frampton success on points is also odds-on at 4/7 generally.
This one could well go the distance given the recent record of both men, but Frampton should run out a good winner and it is well worth backing the Belfast favourite to win by a unanimous decision at evens with Ladbrokes.
Carl Frampton to beat Nonito Donaire by unanimous decision, evens (Ladbrokes)