Tag Archives: Unicorn Challenge Tour

Rob Cross: A Remarkable Example and a New PDC Era?

Author note 1: I wrote the piece below in April 2017. Rob Cross was making a tremendous impact and it seemed to be a watershed moment in the development of the PDC. I may well have underestimated it! Voltage crashed into the Grand Slam and is tearing up the field, he is also likely to rise even higher in the rankings than I suggested in the conclusion to this piece and I suspect he is a game or two away from the Premier League .( CJHH: Nov 17)

Rob Cross at the UK Open. Pic: PDC

Rob Cross caught my attention, as a player, a couple of years ago. During the 2016 UK Open lot of fuss was made of Barry Lynn, however, it was Cross’s talent and attitude that struck me as worth watching. His remarkable subsequent progress could prove an example for others and a validation of the PDC in their efforts to build a sustainable career path for new players.

In its early years, the PDC’s Pro Tour was quite a slow-moving and shy animal. In its original form any player could register with the PDPA and then pay to enter these events. Many hoped to gain enough points/pounds to qualify for the bigger events and kick-start a professional career. Others simply played for the challenge, and pleasure, of playing with the very best.

A Truly Professional Game?

In 2010/11 it was decided to restructure the system and build a structure, similar to that used in golf and tennis, that offered a pathway for players with talent to progress through. The rival organisation’s route, despite its flaws, can also provide players with a path. But progress has been slow, many of the same players dominated for long periods and only those who swapped from the top of the BDO system seemed to become established within the PDC.  This is not to say that many other players, from various darting backgrounds, did not perform superbly for a limited period or that a small number did not break into the top rank after an extended period of trying. Justin Pipe & Peter Wright demonstrated what could be achieved.

Since 2011 the elements of the PDC Tour have grown into a cohesive professional structure that can guide players from their youth performances ( Development Tour) through to a 2nd level tour (Challenge Tour) tour and, via the Qualifying School, then the truly professional ranks of the Pro Tour, European Tour and Majors.  This system offers a set of building blocks toward a top-flight career.

The costs are substantially less than the Pro Tour, the prize money, and other incentives, have been set at levels which allow any determined player to be able to take part. The facilities, venues and atmosphere are virtually identical to the highest level events (non TV) and thus genuine acclimatisation and development are both possible and rewarded. But only when a genuinely new player has demonstrated that this path and structure is viable, for high level and long-term success, can it be classed as a true pathway to professionalism.

PDC’s MVP?

Rob Cross may be a very important player in the progress of PDC darts. He has become the first player to take advantage of all the adult opportunities offered by the new system, winning at every level, and move to the brink of top-flight success. Along the way, he has illustrated some of the other elements available to the modern player and how to gain the maximum from them.

Cross’s composure vs MVG was a huge clue.

Path to Success

Rob broke through by winning qualification to the UK Open in 2016. The qualifying events are completely amateur in nature,  taking place in Riley’s clubs across the UK, but are overseen by the PDC and abide by their basic framework. They immensely difficult to win and often have a very strong field of ex-Pro Tour players, strong BDO players and other very experienced local performers. The vast majority of qualifying players do not progress, past their first couple of games, in the TV event. Rob Cross, however, overcame serious opposition from Pro Tour players, including former Premier League players, and played matches of up to 17 legs, to reach the last 32. He then found himself up against Michael Van Gerwen. Despite the defeat (5-9), he stood up to a complete barrage of other world darts, including a 9 dart leg and a 170 finish, from MVG. He played his own game and performed superbly well. It could be argued that the relaxation of playing a lesser known player, combined with Rob’s strong performance led to MVG producing what he did.

Cross made short work of the PDC’s 2nd Tier.

Next stop was the PDC Challenge Tour. Carrying his momentum from the UK Open, and obvious good form, he reached a final immediately and continued in such fashion for the entire season. His three tour victories ensured that he topped the Challenge Tour Order of Merit and gained an automatic tour card for 2017. In doing so Cross proved that he could win at the next available level of PDC competition, avoided having to attend Q School in January 2017 and could look forward to the 2017 Professional UK Open Qualifiers.

Career Planning and Progression.

In the Autumn of 2016 Cross made another excellent decision, one that may have been at least partly down to the new PDC system. John Archer, a former PDC player, had moved into management and promotion of players. John is a very knowledgeable and straightforward individual who provides good support to his players. His offer to support Rob and the acceptance of that decision seems to have provided the final piece in the jigsaw for Rob’s success. Whether this was due to financial calculations or for support and assistance, with his future career, it was a very smart move. Players, such as Justin Pipe, have made huge progress after easing the burden on themselves as early career professionals. For Cross and Nevada to join hands at this stage was a very astute step.

Professional UK Open Qualifiers.

It appears that considerable thought was given to Rob’s debut season on the Pro Tour. In the early stages he took part in the UK Open qualifiers, performing superbly. Very few players, without considerable high level experience, collect £’s in every one of their first six of these events and in reaching a semi-final more great experience was gained. Thus a first TV major as a professional qualifier was secured. No European tour qualifiers were undertaken at this point. Again choosing from the available experiences and opportunities in a way which would have been scarcely possible a couple of years ago.

Players Championships & UK Open 2017

Next would come another leap in progression. Rob’s Players Championship (PC) debut, February 2017, was steady, these events are seeded, different in atmosphere and tougher in terms of ability. He then returned to the UK Open, this time as a top-ranked professional qualifier, and managed to improve on his 2016 performance reaching the last 16 stage. This was a more significant step than it may appear. When returning to the scene of previous success players are no longer surprise packages and also gain more attention. The pressures are different and not easy to adjust to.

Returning to the PC events, the following weekend, Cross produced a superb performance to triumph in only his third top-tier event. Along the way, Rob defeated former champions, new generation champions and legends of the game, including Raymond Van Barneveld in the qtr finals. He has since added another Players Championship victory to his total and many other later stage efforts. In a debut year this is simply outstanding.

Whitlock and White.
Both defeated, in important matches ,
by Cross in 2017. Pic: PDC

European Tour.

During the weekend of his remarkable PC win Rob also gained his first experience of the Euro Tour qualifiers. After being unsuccessful at the first attempt he managed to qualify for the German Darts Open and has since qualified for four more events, with more qualifiers to come.

These events operate on a hybrid of UK Open and Players Championship formulae. Upon qualification, you are placed into a seeded draw featuring the top-ranked and form players. But games are played singly on stage over a three-day period. It appears that the combination worked very well. Rob has reached the Qtr Finals of three out of four events, gained stage wins over players such as Whitlock and Chisnall whilst adding more ranking £’s toward this seasons major events. This may well be the best consistent performance of any qualifier for this tour. Experience and success here are possibly the most beneficial for any new player. For many years experience, of stage games, large audiences and the single-game high-pressure atmosphere was difficult to come by. Qualifying players were at a huge disadvantage, and often did not play to their fullest potential, as a result. This has been steadily changing since the introduction and expansion of this very successful branch of the PDC structure.

Majors, Worlds and Rankings.

Following this remarkable start to his career, I can find no other who will have achieved so much from a standing start, Cross has qualified for every available event for the rest of 2017. This will include debuts at: The World Matchplay, The World Grand Prix, The European Championships, The Grand Slam, Players Championship Finals and The World Professional Championships.  Only invitational events will be missing from his list from now to the end of the year, even here, however, the PDC has been known to vary this if it can be justified?

Looking at previous debut, and early career, players it is likely that those in similar formats to those regularly played will offer the best chance. Players Championship Finals and the European Championships would seem likely opportunities for Rob to do well. Yet we would be foolish to rule out another leap in achievement. The Grand Prix and then The World Champs offer great reward for fewer wins.

The rankings system will be very important to Rob. The higher he can climb, on all tables, the easier it will be to sustain the success he is achieving. Seedings in certain events and guarantees of tour card retention and a certain income relieve many pressures. His current rank of 52 is superb in such a short time but will be eclipsed at the end of this season.

Based on a simply maintaining his current standard Rob is a certainty for the top 32. The top 20 is likely and, with a strong run or two in a major event, especially the World Champs, he could even break into the top 16. For any PDC debutant these are superb achievements. For a player without significant previous experience they are outstanding and possibly even unique.

In addition to his own remarkable success Cross has demonstrated that the new structure of the PDC, together with smart career planning and a professional attitude, can provide a perfect path to the very top of the game. No need to slog around the BDO for years on end, no need to join the tour and spend years and £000’s learning to adapt to all the different formats, atmosphere, stages, formats etc. Make no mistake,it still takes a player of immense talent and a superb attitude to pull this off, but it has been shown to be possible!

All dart players, and fans. should keep an eye on Mr Rob Cross. and wish him well in progressing, and sustaining, a potentially groundbreaking career in what is fast becoming a truly professional game!


Author note 2: The rest they say is history, Cross went on to outstrip even my wild optimism for his success. World Champion in Jan 2018 and the story continues to this day……….(Jan 2020)

501 or More: Challenge Tour 2017 Events 9-12.

The fourth weekend continued  the rough pattern developed over the previous three in 2017. Strong performances, from the “Yo Yo’s” with the “New Brooms” chipping in again.

Wayne Jones, Andy Smith and Alex Roy for the Yo Yo’s. Jaques, Aspinall and Josh Richardson doing damage in bursts for the new brooms. The leaderboard remains relatively stable but the bunching up behind “The Wanderer” is getting closer.

Pieman Adapts to New Menu!

2011 Ladbrokes.com World Darts Championship - Day Eleven

As predicted, Andy Smith’s slow start burst into life this weekend. The Pieman has the skill and persona to thrive on this tour and is beginning to do so. Steady results on Saturday were followed by a strong run to Sunday’s final. Andy’s draw on Sunday was pretty tough and this seemed to pull the best out of him. He has now crashed into the top 16 on the Order of Merit and is likely to rise again during the later stages of the season.

A Fine Double Act! 

Black Country pairing of Nick Fullwell and Ian Jones should be familiar to anyone who plays open events around the midlands. Travelling partners, and friends, the two have been a regular, and winning, fixture for many years. The arrival of Jones on the PDC tour was always likely to result in Fullwell benefiting. This Sunday featured a Semi Final for each of them and you can rest assured it will not be the last. Almost no one associated with darts would begrudge Nick the extra support , and motivation, which Ian can provide. As for “Whippet” now that he has begun to acclimatise, to regular PDC events, his legendary will to win and battling qualities will become familiar to many more.

A Learning Curve?

challenge tour logo

Radaslaw Szaganski and Robert Rickwood have added two more names to the rush of players proving that past performance is not always a current guide. Neither of these two players had performed outstandingly on the Unicorn Challenge Tour previously, despite Rickwood having solid performances this year, yet Robert claimed a victory and Radaslaw a runner’s up spot in events 9 & 10 respectively. Evidence is beginning to build regarding the benefit of patience and exposure to PDC conditions and formats. A look at the Pro Tour Players Championship events of 2017 will confirm that this is applying at all levels.

Ashton Watch

A no-show from Lisa this weekend. This is probably a very sensible action. She must be able to keep her options open for as long as possible. Although she has shown herself to be competitive, on the tour, the other opportunities available to her mean that she has a chance to build her career in any code or gender balanced events. Should she choose to take part in the remaining events or simply play pick and mix for a while she is able to gain income, experience and confidence from the breadth available to her.

Next Generation

Three standout moments from the next younger players this weekend. Nathan Aspinall winning at this level marks another step in his development, due to his slightly unconventional style “The Asp” is underestimated by many. His match playing ability and talent level should gain him more opportunities at all levels in the coming years. The return to form, although too early to tell, of James Hubbard is welcome, he is a very nice young guy who has suffered severely in recent months. Finally Josh Richardson seems to be again making progress. His choices, in terms of event selection and attitude, seem good, together with his dad, and progress is being made.

Feel Good Story.

A few years ago Paul Harvey looked on the verge of a breakthrough into the higher levels of the game. He reached the semi final of the British Open in 2010 and was playing at a very high level through at least the early part of 2011. It is great to see a return to something approaching this form in recent months. Should he reach, or surpass, those previous levels then keep a very close eye on him.

Order of Merit.

Nathan Aspinall

Young Nathan Aspinall playing the role of David to James Wade’s Goliath in 2015

Jones and Dyer are still in the tour card positions but the pack behind is both expanding in numbers and condensing in terms of the differences between their totals. Wayne Jones is unlikely to slip out of the top two. The additional automatic tour card and the next eight places, earning a free Q School entry, are still available. Aspinall, Rickwood have shown that one victory makes a huge difference and others such as Andy Smith and Luke Humphries seem to be gathering momentum for the later part of the season.

All in all a very good advert for the Unicorn Challenge Tour and it’s likely to get even better in the coming weeks.

 

 

 

501 or more: Challenge Tour 2017 Events 5-8

Wins for the old guard, and a next-generation moment, provide the story of this weekend’s four events on the PDC Challenge Tour. Wayne Jones and Aaron Dyer lead the way overall.

Another Unicorn Challenge Tour weekend passes by and in many ways, it’s the same story. Three wins for former Pro Tour players, two for Wayne Jones and one for Mark Dudbridge, with others such as Kev McDine and Mark Frost making finals and semis. Jones is one of the game’s nice guys and a fierce competitor, it is good to see him bouncing back.

One exception to the normal run of events was the excellent win, in event 5, from Ryan Harrington. A number of darting dynasties have, or are being, formed in the last few years. Bobby and Richie George, Rod and Ryan Harrington and the two Alan Taberns are just three examples. In addition, a few of the up and coming generation have relatives who, although not household names, have strong reputations in the amateur game.

Outside the top two, the prize money is being shared around a little more with more new faces claiming Semi and Qtr Final places. Allen Edwards, Charlie Jackson and Luke Humphries all made the last four over the weekend’s events.

Ashton Watch!

Another good weekend for Lisa Ashton (our review of Challenge Tour 1-4 pointed out the reasons for a special interest in her success) making progress in almost every event this weekend. Good wins over tough players resulted in a 5th round appearance in event 8. This last 16 appearance may be the furthest yet achieved by a female player in a non-invitational, PDC Tour event. She is currently sitting at a solid 58 in the rankings.

The Disappeared?

There are a number of players who have flattered to deceive at this or higher levels and are struggling this year. Barry Lynn, who came within a place or two of gaining a tour card last year, seems to be struggling badly. Former PDC New Player of the Year Mark Hylton was a no-show after a very poor start to his season. Steve Maish, Pro Tour event winner, also seems to be fading from view.

League Table 

Wayne Jones now leads the order of merit with nearly £5000, w Aaron Dyer is in the other tour card claiming spot. Lee Evans, Mark Frost, Paul Milford, Alan Tabern, Ryan Harrington, Mark Dudbridge, Kev Dowling and Martin Lukeman make up the rest of the top ten spots. Less than £1000 separates position 20 from a place in the top ten and with more events than ever it could be a very interesting season. Some former “greats”, including Andy “The Pieman” Smith are struggling, to adapt and may come strong later, together with many who have recently proved themselves capable of winning at this level. Whether they can re-group time to make their mark on this years tour will be the deciding factor on whether the story will be “same old, same old” or ” Challenge Tour brings new life to PDC”.