Trump bidding for four NI titles in a row
Two months after the last world ranking tournament, the snooker season resumes tomorrow with the Northern Ireland Open. This is the opening leg of the Home Nation Series. Judd Trump is bidding for his fourth straight win in the event. Remarkably, he beat Ronnie O'Sullivan by the same 9-7 scoreline in each of the three finals, and the draw allows for yet another repeat of that mouthwatering final.
Those statistics prove this is a tournament in which the formbook tends to stand up but beware this year's different slot on the schedule. Previously this was played in late November, relatively deep into the season, when the top players had enjoyed plenty of time to work off any summer rust.
Last year that barely applied at all as Covid meant the break was effectively much earlier. This time, when reconvening for the British Open, very few of the top players were anywhere near close to their best. Upsets came thick and fast, and that may well prove the case again. A best-of-seven format until to the quarter-finals also increases that likelihood.
Ning, Maguire preferred in top section
These factors lead me to swerve Trump for a change. He is generally very reliable in this format but there's a slight worry about his preparation playing in the World Pool Championship. Plus he has a tricky draw from the last-64 onwards - facing a potential sequence of the promising Gao Yang, Lu Ning, Zhou Yuelong or in-form Jimmy Robertson - before the last eight.
We are still in the round of 128 - 16 matches are yet to be played, mostly involving top seeds - so I'm employing the 'two from each quarter' plan. That generally involves one from each mini-section (or eighth).
Here, I'll go for Ning. He started the season well by reaching the British Open quarters, enjoyed a good win over Scott Donaldson in this already, and has developed into a consistent performer. Just the type to profit if the big guns are slightly off colour.
Next, try Stephen Maguire at 70/1. Although hardly the most reliable, but only Trump and similarly unreliable Mark Allen would be favourite against him prior to the semis. The Scot needs ranking points and registered three decent wins at the British Open.
Persevere with overdue Lisowski
Neil Robertson is the one to beat in the second quarter, but the Aussie is another who I'm loathe to trust early season, over a short format. Jack Lisowski, Shaun Murphy and Stuart Bingham present formidable opponents in the same section.
Thrice a runner-up last term, each time to Trump, Lisowski must be perservered with. Yes he remains frustratingly naive but he's too good to stay winless and 33/1 are pretty generous odds. I expect him to build some momentum with relatively easy wins prior to the last-32.
In the other mini-section, preference is for Bingham, who has won a couple of Home Nations events previously. 'Ballrun' is another who could use ranking points after a frustrating season that saw several silly defeats. He bounced back at the Crucible and again, his early draw isn't terrifying. Sam Craigie and Tom Ford are plausible alternatives.
Nice draw for O'Sullivan
Now to back some big-guns. There were hints of decline from Ronnie O'Sullivan last term and there's always a doubt about his attitude. However he did reach five finals and on the attitude front, the Rocket showed surprising resilience and willingness to battle on in frames once lost.
If tuned up and in any sort of mood, the only player I can see troubling Ronnie before the last-eight is Yan Bingtao. However the young Masters champion isn't all that reliable in these short formats - which are O'Sullivan's forte - and Yan has a brutal opener against Hossein Vafaei.
The other mini-section here is more competitive, led by perennial nearly men Kyren Wilson, Barry Hawkins and Ali Carter. Rob Milkins and Xiao Guodong could be dangerous too.
Wilson always liable to go deep
Whilst last year was really frustrating - never more so than when losing a big lead in the Crucible semis - I'm sticking with Kyren. 20/1 represents a fair each-way bet given his consistency, and the certainty that he will be prepared where others might not.
The bottom section, on paper, is led by world champion Mark Selby, Championship League winner David Gilbert, John Higgins and Mark Williams. The latter stunned me by winning the British Open, but I remain sceptical he's really back as a frontline contender. Higgins has a horrible opener against top prospect Joe O'Connor.
Without underestimating his task, I'll throw a few pennies on O'Connor at 425/1. If beating Higgins, he'd be a strong favourite in the next round and well capable of causing further upsets. He only lost 4-3 to Selby at last year's Welsh Open, for example.
Keep resurgent Yupeng onside
O'Connor is Richard Mann's pick in the SportingLife's Five to Follow article, for which I was pleased to contribute. My choice is Cao Yupeng, and he's taken here at 125/1.
Granted, this is very tough section but Cao has the talent to beat anyone and has started his comeback season in flying form. As argued in that piece, he may well be under the betting radar.
Follow Paul on Twitter @paulmotty