JOHN HIGGINS and Mark Williams, who have six World Championship titles between them, took important steps towards earning automatic Crucible places at this year’s event by reaching the quarter-finals of the BetVictor Welsh Open in Cardiff on Thursday.

Higgins, world champion in 1998, 2007, 2009 and 2011, defeated Michael Georgiou 4-2; Williams, Crucible winner in 2000 and 2003, beat Judd Trump 4-1.

Higgins came into the tournament 14th in the rankings with Williams 16th. The top 16 are exempt from qualifying, although this is likely in fact to be the top 15 as Ali Carter’s top 16 seeding has been frozen.

Qualifying for the Crucible is always a traumatic experience but more so this year as all players not seeded through to the final stages will have to compete in three rounds.

The decision was taken last year to expand the event to 144 players, inviting back former champions and international amateurs from around the world.

Itaro Santos, a Brazilian, recently won an American play-off in, of all places, Bolivia. So the cast assembling at Ponds Forge in Sheffield in early April will be nothing if not eclectic.

However, this has gone down like the most leaden of lead balloons with many players, especially those ranked in and around the 17 to 32 bracket who have traditionally only had to win one match to qualify.

And of course, the matches are all best of 19 frames and played very close to the televised stage of the championship, where stamina is a must.

"I'm trying to win as much prize money as I can to get one of those 15 spots," said Williams of the race to the Crucible.

 "It looks like it's going to be a race between me, Graeme Dott and Robert Milkins for one place and it's going to be really close.”

Indeed it is, but the Welshman has given himself every chance by reaching the last eight of his home event and also qualifying for the Indian and China Opens. The cut-off for seedings is after the Beijing tournament.

Mark Williams: on course for the Crucible

Mark Williams: on course for the Crucible

Higgins last had to qualify for the Crucible in 1995 and having kept his top 16 place since, it would be a comedown for the Scot to find himself in qualifying round one. Again, he is in Mumbai and Beijing although it must also be remembered that as it is a two-year rolling system, points from two years ago come off so it isn’t just about the points going on.

It’s all going to be especially harsh on whoever finishes 16th after the China Open, assuming Carter does not rejoin the top 16 before then. It is a little reminiscent of Ian McCulloch having to play in the qualifiers for the 2006 World Championship despite being the world no.16. On that occasion, Shaun Murphy was defending champion but not a top 16 player.

McCulloch had to play one round – bad enough – but now the punishment for not being an automatic seed is even tougher.

It remains to be seen how this will actually change the way people see the World Championship. Outside of diehard snooker fans, for the vast majority of people the game’s showpiece event starts and ends at the Crucible. The idea is to get the qualifiers and thus the tournament as a whole more publicity – all very laudable – but it’s unclear how many former champions will actually accept invites or the global reach of the amateur entrants.

Then again, I remember years ago the complaint from 17 to 32 players was that it was unfair their round was played immediately after the previous rounds as the players coming through had more momentum.

The truth is, no one wants to play in the qualifiers – which is why a top 16 (15) place is so highly prized.

The new system also guarantees that all but the very top ranked players will enter every counting tournament as they desperately accumulate every pound they can in the race for the Crucible.

Both went on to do both their Wels Open title hopes and Crucible ambitions further good with quarter-final wins on Friday to reach the last four and guarantee a payday of at least £20,000 - Higgins overcoming Stephen Maguire 5-1 while Williams beat Marco Fu by the same score.


Photographs by Monique Limbos.