Tuesday 12 December 2023

Bunting, Joyce, Spellman

Stephen Bunting might well be the most underrated player in the world of darts right now, at least in terms of players that are established, well known names, but it feels like the general populace is catching up after a very strong televised end to the season which is pushing the former Lakeside champion back up towards the top 16 in the world. Looking through the relevant areas in turn, Bunting was a top 16 player in the averages on the Pro Tour, and in results it was a story of consistency, albeit without a final run. Stephen reached two semi finals (both after the Matchplay), would be able to win his board on a further nine occasions, and only lost in his opening game in five tournaments, showing a remarkably steady level of play which you think could easily have resulted in a title if things had dropped slightly differently with a bit of luck. The European Tour showed a generally good level of play, which peaked in Jena with a final run, only being halted by Krzysztof Ratajski but getting wins over Mickey Mansell, Joe Cullen, Martin Schindler, Andrew Gilding and Wesley Plaisier along the way to get to that stage. Bunting would add a further two quarter finals and three more final day appearances out of nine attempts in total for a solid season. On TV, Stephen definitely appears to be hitting things at just the right time. The UK Open was just a bit of misfortune - drawing Peter Wright immediately and only losing 10-9 in the end. The Matchplay also saw a similar tough draw up against Gerwyn Price, losing 10-3 when maybe not quite on his best game looking at the averages. Stephen would get through to the last sixteen of the next two events, beating Nathan Aspinall in Leicester but then narrowly losing an up and down game against Martin Schindler, a win he would avenge in Dortmund in the first round, only to lose 10-8 to Chris Dobey. The last two events would be more of a sign that he's playing well. At the Grand Slam, he pushed through to a new best of a semi final - getting through an interesting group that was topped by Stowe Buntz, Stephen would comfortably defeat Danny Noppert and then Buntz in a quarter final rematch to get through to play Rob Cross, matching Voltage's averages but only just losing 16-13 in what looked like a pretty good chance to make a first PDC major final. Finally at Minehead, Bunting would match his best run with back to back major quarter finals - taking out Mickey Mansell, Gian van Veen and Kim Huybrechts, and then in the quarters Stephen would average over 100 and take Michael van Gerwen all the way to a deciding leg. The overall numbers don't lie - Bunting is playing better than his ranking suggests, and while his ranking is such that he would potentially run into MvG at an early stage of the tournament, he is not that far off that sort of level of play, so hit a good day (or have someone help out from nowhere), and matching his best at this tournament of a semi final does not look completely unrealistic.

Ryan Joyce had a bit of a down 2022, relying on the PDPA qualifier to reach the worlds and then being denied by Scott Williams despite a 103 average in the opening round, but 2023 has been a big improvement, with numbers and results that hint at his quality of play is worthy of a top 32 berth, rather than just settling for third on the Pro Tour list. We'll go to TV first, as that's where he's made his most obvious impression to casuals - Ryan only played the two Minehead events, and was maybe unfortunate to draw Mike de Decker first up in the UK Open and only just lose in a deciding leg, but the Players Championship Finals less than a month ago saw Joyce make his deepest major run, going all the way to the semi final. With a very respectable #11 seed (more on how he got that in a minute), he beat Daniel Klose, Joe Cullen, Jermaine Wattimena and Damon Heta to win his quarter - Joyce's numbers would drop a bit in the semi against Luke Humphries, but most players' peak game aren't beating Humphries at the moment, so it's not the worst time to get a duff game I suppose. Ryan got that number 11 seed through an excellent season in the Players Championship series - he has won one of these before, albeit three years ago now, so it's not an unprecedented thing, but reaching three finals was maybe a little bit of a surprise for someone who we know's decent, but has never hit the top 32. The first was right before the Matchplay, getting decent wins over Dirk van Duijvenbode amongst others, but falling a bit flat in the final against Damon Heta. The second was at the end of September, beating Michael van Gerwen and Jonny Clayton at the back end of the event, only for Gary Anderson to be a bit too strong in the final. Then, two events later, he got the job done, holding his nerve 8-7 against Gerwyn Price in an excellent run which saw no real bad games and also a lot of his opponents keeping things tight and putting on the pressure. This is setting him up excellently for 2024 and a return to all the majors looks almost a certainty. The European Tour might be one area of improvement however, with a limited set of appearances at four, getting a couple of first round losses and only pushing on to the final day once in Trier where he turned over Dave Chisnall before going out to Joe Cullen. Make no mistake, Joyce is a very capable operator, and would probably be favoured against a lot of seeds, Bunting is the perfect storm of being just better and also running into form as well to make this draw not one of those occasions, but this second round game could be one of the spicier ones.

That is, of course, if Alex Spellman doesn't throw everything out of the window, the American qualifier being possibly the best American we've seen since peak Larry Butler, and certainly a name most people would have wanted to avoid in the draw. He's on debut here, so where's he come from? Alex is a name that's been around for a little while, but it's only really been 2023 where he's really burst through and made statements, finishing top of the CDC order of merit, after winning three titles - beating Jason Brandon in Indiana with a 95 average, Dave Cameron in Illinois with a 99 average, then Leonard Gates back in Indiana, cracking the three figure barrier in that final. Spellman would augment those three wins with another two finals, coming up on the wrong side when Stowe Buntz was completing his weekend hat-trick across the border in Ontario, and the numbers he put up on the tour were legitimate. An average of near 92, one of only two players (Jules van Dongen managed it on a limited schedule) to crask the 90 mark, that is more impressive than it looks given averages inflate as you play stronger opposition, so stick a point or so on that and it shows he's no joke. Spellman would miss out on getting an automatic berth here by losing in the semi finals of the North American Championship to Matt Campbell, but the overall tour results were more than enough. Spellman also won the CDC Continental Cup to book a spot at the US Darts Masters, where he lost 6-2 to Luke Humphries in an uninspiring game, but more TV experience is always good. Alex didn't limit himself to the American circuit - he took a shot at Q-School, playing in the EU event, getting through stage one fairly comfortably, and putting up a decent enough showing in stage two, getting to the quarters of one day having beaten Gian van Veen in the last sixteen before losing to eventual winner on the day Jeffrey de Zwaan, and would stick around for several Challenge Tour events, playing all of the first three weekends and picking up over two grand in prize money overall, having a best run to the semi finals in event four, and knocking out players on that circuit like Harry Ward, John Henderson, Dennie Olde Kalter, Stefan Bellmont, Fallon Sherrock and Peter Jacques, all of whom should be known to most darts enthusiasts. The results were even enough to see him into a couple of Challenge Tour events when many didn't bother to travel to Germany, he'd lose to Damon Heta and James Hurrell, but that he's sticking around in Europe for this sort of duration indicates he's taking his game very seriously. He's also not neglected the opportunities in the WDF, winning opens in North Carolina and Massachusetts this season, and has also appeared in the Super Series a couple of times this year to continue to rack up a lot of match practice against competent opponents in a short space of time. This is easily the most interesting section of the draw, and while I think there's a clear seed - Pro Tour - qualifier level of favouritism, any match between any of these three should be fascinating.

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