Northern Ireland Open reflections as Judd Trump beats Ronnie O'Sullivan in epic final

Judd Trump remains the man to beat
Judd Trump remains the man to beat

Richard Mann looks back on Judd Trump's stunning victory at the Northern Ireland Open with the UK Championship fast on the horizon.

Has the baton really changed hands?

The Class of 92: quite possibly the best thing to come out of snooker since Big Break and the production line for some of the best players to ever grace the sport.

In John Higgins, it has produced a four-time world champion and the beaten finalist at the Crucible Theatre in each of the last three years.

O'Sullivan labelled Higgins 'an unbelievable player' on Eurosport recently and with 30 ranking titles on his CV, along with two wins at The Masters, it is argue with that summary.

Semi-final finishes at the World Open and last week's Northern Ireland Open confirm Higgins remains a real force in the game, if not quite as devastating as he once was, but the fact he was beaten by Judd Trump on both of those occasions tells a significant story.

That is now the third time in as many major clashes that Trump has got the better of Higgins, the other being last season's World Championship final, something that will be a particularly bitter pill to swallow for Higgins given he had previously dominated their head-to-head record 22-10.

Trump has made no secret of his admiration for Higgins in the past, something that was again evident in his post-World Championship final comments, the world number one no doubt bruised from defeats such as he suffered when leading 11-9 at Sheffield back in 2018 only for Higgins to produce another unforgettable late-show to prevail.

Nevertheless, that is all history now and having appeared certain to lead 2-0 and 4-2 in their semi-final encounter in Belfast on Saturday, Higgins had no answers to Trump in the closing stages of a match that Trump might well have lost 18 months ago.

This is by no means a criticism of Higgins, who remains a brilliant match player, but at 44 years of age, he will be fighting to maintain his high standards from now on whereas Trump is a young man in the prime of life, his snooker on a steep upward trajectory while his hunger for success goes to insatiable levels.

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As someone who grew up in an era dominated by the likes of O'Sullivan and Higgins, it was a strange feeling to watch the latter slumped in his chair as he headed for defeat, watching on with a wry smile as Trump produced one of the greatest shots in recent memory, the cue ball screwed in and out of baulk from the black before landing perfectly on frame-ball red via three cushions.

Higgins was no longer Trump's master, it was roles reversed and he knew it. A shake of the hands and a few warm congratulatory words at the conclusion of the match and Higgins was gone, the reigning Northern Ireland Open champion left to soak up the warm applause from the Belfast crowd before turning his attentions back to another graduate from the Class of 92.

Less than 24 hours later, Trump would face O'Sullivan, the star pupil from that class and the greatest player to ever pick up a snooker cue.

Ever since turning professional in 2005, Trump had been earmarked as the heir to O'Sullivan's throne but despite adding a host of titles to his CV, he remained a constant target for criticism with his lifestyle and World Championship near-misses continuing to come under close inspection.

Things came to head after losing to Kyren Wilson at the Champion of Champions last year, even Wilson himself offering an opinion on Trump's apparent lack of success, but that would become a turning point for Trump, who went on to triumph in Belfast before winning both The Masters and the World Championship.

On two of those occasions it was O'Sullivan he beat in the final, the first sign of a changing of the guard, and though O'Sullivan would gain his revenge in dramatic fashion in the semi-finals of the Tour Championship later that season, Trump soon became the number one ranked player in the world.

Much of the focus at the start of the new season was about the rivalry between the pair and the potential for some blockbuster clashes but we had to wait until November 17th to finally get our wish, O'Sullivan's progress to the Sunday showpiece setting up a final of dreams after Trump had earlier defeated Higgins.

With one member of the Class of 92 cast aside, it was left to O'Sullivan to try and defy the relentless Trump advance but despite the 43-year-old producing a wonderful display that featured a couple of trademark clearances to steal frames from behind, he could never quite lay a meaningful blow on a breathtakingly brilliant Trump.

Ronnie O'Sullivan
Ronnie O'Sullivan

The pair traded six centuries across two sessions, but Trump made four of them and his 9-7 victory was a deserved one in a match in which he led from start to finish.

There were no tears at its conclusion, O'Sullivan clearly heartened by his own form following a relatively lean spell but also quick to acknowledge the high-class performance he had just witnessed from his opponent.

For Trump's part, his post-match comments were typical of the champion he has become, showing a more mature man to go with the more mature player on the table who now stands alone at the top of the sport.

The champion of the world had been crowned Northern Ireland Open champion again, the current best player in the world had defeated the best player of all time, and we were left wondering whether the baton had been passed and the dismantling of that famous class had finally begun.

On this weekend's evidence, the hold Higgins previously had over Trump has gone and for all he ought to remain highly competitive in the coming weeks and months, he might never be able to scale the heights of yesteryear.

As for O'Sullivan, the fire still appears to be burning strong and the competitive juices continue to flow like a torrent of white water when he finds himself at the latter stages of a major tournament. Furthermore, he still possesses the tools to produce high-class snooker and mix it with - and beat - the very best in the world.

Whether that will be enough to stop the Trump typhoon the next time they meet, only time will tell, but with next stop York and O'Sullivan's beloved UK Championship, it is surely too soon to conclude that the baton between two great players has been passed for good.

What does seem true, however, is that the Class of 92 is finally close to surrendering its dominance of snooker. Its days are numbered and only O'Sullivan appears capable of producing a significant last stand.

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