Tour Survival Rankings Paint Sorry Picture for Irish Snooker

Former world champion Ken Doherty’s tour survival is in the balance with just a few ranking events remaining in the 2019/20 campaign.

Fellow Dubliner Fergal O’Brien is also at risk, with both competitors currently outside the provisional top 64 in the world rankings.

The pair’s relegation, while not wholly unexpected given their respective ages, would represent a sad outcome for a lot of fans.

But should they both drop off the circuit, a much greater question will inevitably arise – what has happened to Irish snooker?

If Doherty and O’Brien fail in their tour survival efforts, there is a distinct possibility that for the first time in the modern era there will be no player from the Republic of Ireland ranked on the Main Tour.

The duo, or another Irish amateur hopeful, could potentially return immediately via Q School in May, and there is likely to be a couple of spots up for grabs at the upcoming European Amateur Championship in March.

Doherty, of course, was also given an invitational tour card when he previously fell off in 2017.

However, even if there does manage to be a name from the Republic of Ireland on the roster next season it would only mask the wider issue.

Irish snooker has been in decline for a long time and there simply hasn’t been enough done to buck the trend.

The number of club closures across Ireland has been widely reported and young people are more interested in a lot of other sports – GAA, soccer, rugby, and golf are significantly more popular pastimes – but those aren’t the only reasons for the demise.

Up until almost a decade ago, the Republic of Ireland Snooker and Billiards Association (RIBSA) could always rely on being given the opportunity to offer one of their top players on the amateur scene a pro ticket.

Between 2006 and 2011, the likes of David Morris, Rodney Goggins, and Brendan O’Donoghue all entered the Main Tour via this avenue.

Alongside Vincent Muldoon and David Hogan, it was the general perception that this quintet would provide the next wave of success after the heady years of Doherty and O’Brien, and to a lesser extent Michael Judge and Joe Delaney.

It didn’t prove to be the case and by 2016 all of the great hopes had disappointingly fallen by the wayside.

Before the beginning of the 2012/13 term, the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association (WPBSA) took away the national governing body nominations for Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and England.

In the years since, only one fresh face has emerged from the Irish scene, when Josh Boileau gained promotion from winning the European Under-21 Championship in 2016.

Boileau’s debut tenure, just like those who had crossed the Irish sea before him a few years earlier, ended after just a couple of seasons and tour survival ultimately not secured.

Quite a number of these competitors are still competing at a high level on the Irish amateur circuit.

O’Donoghue, Morris, and Goggins lead the current RIBSA rankings and have won all four of this season’s ranking titles between them.

Once again, there are lofty predictions being made about a few bright young stars, with the Cork stable on the south coast of Ireland particularly thriving at the moment.

Teenagers Ross Bulman, who missed out on graduating from Q School last season by a single frame, and reigning European under-18 champion Aaron Hill are bright prospects – the latter currently ranked 11th on the Challenge Tour.

Boileau’s recent flirtation with the professional scene ignites a cautionary tale, though, and a reminder of the potential importance of moving to one of the English academies when attempting to join the elite – a dedication a lot of Irish players seem unwilling to make.

There’s no doubting the fact that it’s not easy financially for these players, and many of them now have young families to factor into their considerations as well.

But whether there’s the required drive to succeed at the very top of the sport is debatable.

Whether RIBSA has done enough since losing its NGB nomination to properly prepare its best players is another discussion that is going to considerably divide opinion.

Not so long ago, it appeared as though the pinnacle for Irish snooker players to strive for was wearing the green waistcoat at an international amateur tournament.

Yet, there’s a situation now where the majority of the best players don’t even seem interested in competing in these events, where tour cards are up for grabs.

The WSF Open – which has effectively replaced the IBSF World Championship as the most prestigious global amateur event because it provides an avenue to the professional ranks – was held in Malta in January.

There wasn’t a single article posted about it on the RIBSA website and the three Irish players who competed, with no disrespect intended because fair play to them for at least giving it a go, have never even threatened to win a domestic competition.

Unsurprisingly, the trio won just two matches between them and all failed to advance from the group stages.

Then there’s Q School and the Challenge Tour, with year after year a fairly dismal offering of cueists travelling in an attempt to reach the big-time.

Indeed, in the past RIBSA used to consistently schedule its National Championship around the same time as Q School – an almost laughable clash of dates.

Small NGBs like those in Northern Ireland, Wales, and Scotland – whose automatic nominations were also taken away eight years ago – have a greater return from the qualifying series.

While Morris (twice) is the only player from the Republic to graduate, Wales have had seven players emerge, Scotland five, and Northern Ireland two.

One other thing that doesn’t help matters is the fact that there hasn’t been a World Snooker sanctioned event south of the border since 2013, something that would undoubtedly encourage young players to pick up a cue – particularly if it were broadcast on Irish television.

Who knows, Doherty and O’Brien may still secure their tour survival come the conclusion of this season.

They are both outside the top 64 cut-off point in the provisional end-of-season rankings at the moment, but a lot will depend on their performances in the World Championship qualifiers in April.

Even so, whether they stay on or they don’t, the future of Irish snooker on the Main Tour paints a continuously depressing picture.

Doherty provided Ireland with one of its most memorable sporting achievements when he captured the Crucible crown in 1997.

As the fable goes, the streets of Dublin were emptied of crime that night as supporters in the capital city were fixated on their darling overcoming Stephen Hendry in the final.

It was a high point for Irish snooker and, between them, Doherty and O’Brien would feature in at least one Triple Crown final for seven successive seasons.

Fast forward a couple of decades and it could shamefully soon be the Main Tour that’s emptied of any participation from the Republic of Ireland for the first time.

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