Friday 1 December 2023

Cullen, van Dongen, Penhall

Is it just me, or has it been a fairly quiet season for Joe, who's now making his fourteenth appearance on this stage but is yet to advance beyond the last sixteen stages? He's maintaining his ranking based off of a couple of good runs in the middle of the season, reaching two major semi finals, but outside of that it's been a moderately mediocre season, picking up no titles and not even making a final on the floor, something you'd expect of someone with Cullen's quality. Let's look through the year on TV first - Joe had a little bit of a run at the UK Open, getting moderately favourable draws against Dylan Slevin and Karel Sedlacek, but would be comprehensively beaten by Nathan Aspinall at the last sixteen stage. We then had the best bit of his season - semi finals at both Blackpool and Leicester, getting to that stage by beating Mike de Decker in the first round in both events. He would continue in the Matchplay with a good win over Gerwyn Price, and then flew out to a 5-0 lead against Daryl Gurney, being pegged back slightly but eventually getting home by that five leg margin, but in the semi final Nathan Aspinall would be too strong, while at the Grand Prix, Cullen defeated Ross Smith and Chris Dobey in close affairs before not picking up a set against Luke Humphries. That'd be pretty much it on TV though, Krzysztof Ratajski saw for him in Dortmund, he didn't make the Grand Prix (and didn't even enter the qualifier, bizarrely), while at Minehead he would get a comfortable win over Jamie Hughes but fall to Ryan Joyce in round two. As mentioned, his floor form hasn't been fantastic either - he played in every Euro Tour event, but would only reach the final session on three occasions, and only won his opening game just over half the time. On the floor, Cullen would finish outside the top twenty in averages, and while he had a decent record of getting through to the last eight, which he did on seven occasions, he was unable to push any of these into final appearances, let alone a title. While he wasn't exactly losing to bad players, Joe's the sort of player you would expect to be good to get one in a season, and this breaks a four year streak of having picked up some form of ranking title. His overall numbers are a bit below where his ranking is at right now, and with a tricky potential third round opponent in Ryan Searle, perhaps the two might end up getting closer following this event.

Jules van Dongen is one of a number of players who got their card in 2022, but without a miracle run here will be losing his card at the end of the season. The Dutch/American thrower took quite some time to acclimatise to the main circuit, having a pretty disastrous 2022 season, but improved a lot in 2023, particularly in recent months where he's improved to arguably a top 32 level of scoring since the Matchplay. Signs of improvement were also mirrored in results - Jules only made one of the first ten European Tour events, but two of the last three, beating Connor Scutt in the first and then Patrik Kovacs and Danny Noppert in the most recent event to reach the final day, coming close to going further but losing a decider to Stephen Bunting. A similar pattern would be seen on the Pro Tour - winning just three matches in the first ten events, and taking until event fifteen to even reach a board final, but from there things looked a lot better - only the four first round exits, which were often the result of bad draws, coupled with three board wins, saw him gain enough money to sneak into this field as one of the last Pro Tour qualifiers, as well as reach Minehead, where he would likely have been disappointed with his performance in a large opening round loss to Damon Heta. Earlier in the season van Dongen naturally played in the UK Open, but there he would lose his opening game to Kevin Doets, while he also gained further TV experience in the World Cup. There, partnering Leonard Gates, they had what looked like a wide open group also involving Denmark and Austria, but the group was split with everyone winning one game, and the USA would miss out on leg difference on account of their win over Denmark only being by the deciding leg. It'll be interesting to see whether van Dongen backs the level of play he has right now and tries to re-up his tour card, or looks to take advantage of the increasing opportunities that are available both in the US as well as outside of the PDC system as a whole. It'd be a shame if he didn't try to stick around.

Darren Penhall is here on account of winning the DPA tour - a tour which has produced some great talents that we see on the main tour right now, but of which the actual strength is still somewhat questionable after multiple seasons where the events were fragmented, with 2023 being the first season back as a fully unified tour, and with the issue that some players have seemingly ignored the tour in favour of events run by other organisations. Regardless, Penhall is currently one of the clear two highest scorers in the series, and dominated the tour up to the cutoff date, winning more than half of the 21 events held and reaching another three finals, to secure just a few hundred dollars less in prize money than his nearest three competitors combined. A former tour card holder in 2020 and 2021, Penhall, born in Cornwall but now residing back in Australia following losing his card after the two years were up, has also appeared in the two World Series events that were held in his part of the world this year, losing narrowly to Michael Smith and not so narrowly to Peter Wright, averaging in the high 80's, showing a general level of competence in the televised arena. Looking back at his time as a card holder, he wasn't able to make a great deal of headway, making a couple of European Tour events but losing in the opening round, and personal circumstances saw him not play at all in 2021. He did try to regain his card in 2022, having an alright Challenge Tour run in the opening weekend, which also gained him a couple of spot appearances in Pro Tour events, as well as using the associate qualifier to make one of the Euro Tour events, where he put in a great performance averaging 100 to defeat Luc Peters, but would fall to Luke Humphries on the Saturday. I think it's fair to say that Penhall is the outsider here, more to do with van Dongen's form rather than Darren's level of play, but it's just good to see him playing well and being happy back in Australia.

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