Rod Lawler – Man In Form

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So far in 2012/13, the big prizes have gone the way of Mark Davis, Ricky Walden and Barry Hawkins, but the man who has both played and won more matches and frames than any other is Liverpool’s Rod Lawler. It could have been so different for him however, after he came through the final round of this year’s Q School to regain a place on the main tour at the first attempt.

I recently caught up with Rod and in the first part of a two-part interview, he talks about his start to the season, his successful Q School run and his thoughts on the current tour set-up…

PSB: So Rod, 17 matches for you, 13 wins and we are still in July! It has been a crazy start to the season for you, but a good one…

Rod Lawler: Yeah I’m delighted with the start I have had. It has justified going back to the Q School for me because I had a decision to make whether to enter that or not at my age.

I still really enjoy the competition side and at Q School I got through in the last chance, played very well in the last event, only lost two frames and since then I have just continued that same form really. It is not as if I have suddenly started playing better since Q School, it’s the same standard of form as I showed in that. I’ve won a couple of close matches which obviously give you confidence and from there I have kicked on. It had been a nice, pleasant surprise and change really.

PSB: How much of a decision was it to go back to Q School for you? Did you seriously think about not entering?

RL: With three events to go last season, the Welsh Open, China Open and the World Championship, I said to myself that if I played well in those, I would give Q School a try, because I knew I was going to fall off at that stage unless I really did well in those three events.

I basically played well in those three events, I lost to Ken Doherty in the last 64 in one of them, I lost to Steve Davis in the last 64 of one of them in a cracking match and I lost to Liu Chuang in a good match, from where he then kicked on and reached the Crucible.

Where I finished off playing in the season, I thought that I had beaten three main tour players in the last three tournaments who were staying on the tour, so there was no reason why I shouldn’t give Q School a go.

I was only just leaving the tour and I would have had to have joined the real world and got a real job! It was faced with that really and once I’d got through and now I have had a good start to the season, it has taken a bit of pressure off me in terms of points which has justified doing it, so I’m delighted.

PSB: Looking back at the Q School, you came close to qualifying in the first event. I remember going onto the livescores and I think you were on a break of around 43 in the deciding frame of your final round match…

RL: You are totally right, I was on 43 against Ian Burns and I like Ian a lot, I’ve got to know him recently with practising with him, he’s not a million miles away from me in Preston. I was on the verge of beating him, but every credit to him, he had a one visit to win from 43-0 down, so I was driving away from that event thinking that’s probably my chance now.

PSB: You lost in the first round of the second event too, you must have been drained there?

RL: My head was in a jam jar and I lost to another close friend Mike Wild. It’s never nice when you are playing someone that you have a practice with occasionally, Mike is a really nice fella and I was just in no fit state to play, I really wasn’t.

I think that it was a day or two after I’d lost to Ian Burns so it’s tough, mentally it’s very tough is snooker and your head had to be in the right place. Normally my head is in the right place but at that particular time it wasn’t.

But since then I have had my mind on the right things and it has gone well, very well. I was really glad though with how I conducted myself in the last event to only lose two frames, it was a mega effort and I really played well to get back on.

It’s not a thing that a lot of players would enjoy going through, with just one event to go and I tried to get the enjoyment in it and to try my best. I’m just delighted that I showed my true form in the last event. Coming back from the defeat against Ian was a big character showing for me this season.

PSB: Finally on the Q School, what do you think of that as a system generally?

RL: I’m supportive of it, I’m not critical, but the one thing I would say is that it is just the pressure that builds, from the first event to the second and then to the last event. Come the last event it really is last chance saloon and it is a pressure then and maybe I handled it better than some of the younger players in the event.

I played some smashing players in it, good players for the future who I really rate. As an example I beat Scott Donaldson in the first one, he has obviously made the tour this season now and he is a smashing player. It just shows how strong the Q School is.

But on a whole, it’s a very fair system to give people a chance to get on tour in one hit and then if they are on tour they know where they stand for two years.

PSB: As mentioned at the start of our chat, you have had a great start to the new season and you have been on the livestreams quite a lot as well, have you enjoyed that?

RL: Obviously with coming in at round one, I have played some cracking first rounds. I think I played Luca Brecel in one and that was a smashing match where we both played well.

I played on the livestream against Gareth Allen in Shanghai as well and with playing well in those matches, I think maybe sometimes they think if you have got a good second round, they will give you a go.

I seem to have played a couple of second rounds as well and played well in those as well so I’m delighted really. Since I last saw you (at UKPTC1), I’ve played in the Shanghai Masters qualifiers and I played really well again, just ran out of ideas in my last match, but no complaints, three wins which is a big effort.

PSB: I was looking earlier, last season you actually won ten matches in all competitions and this year you have won twelve already and we are still in July! What do you put that down to?

RL: I am using a new shaft on my cue this season and I was using it for the last three events last season. Maybe that gave me a little bit of confidence and maybe starting the season with so many matches under my belt, run into a few players who are a little bit short of match practice and that has worked in my favour.

But the matches I have won against Liang Wenbo, Jamie Jones and against Stephen Maguire, I have played well, Against Peter Ebdon I played well in UKPTC1, so I am really happy with my current form, it has been really good.

PSB: What do you think to being back on tour this season but starting on zero points, rather than starter points?

RL: I would have preferred to have started with the starter points because the way I have started, I wouldn’t have thought that I would have been too far away from the top 64 because I think I am on about 5,000 points already.

I am happy with the two years which is good, but I have sort of resigned myself to this season, no matter how well I play, the best I can do is 65. But if some players pull out or cannot play such as Joe Jogia or Stephen Hendry, it can come down to 65, 66. But there are some smashing players outside of the 64 fighting over one or two places.

PSB: Obviously you have got the first cut-off coming after the next PTC, so at least for the International Championship you should be top 64 in terms of seeding…

RL: Yeah at that time I will be, so in that sense I suppose I’m going to benefit right away, but on the other side if we did have a full field of 64 players I wouldn’t be. And it would be a little bit cruel because to be fair I don’t think that anybody can deny I have been playing better than a 64 player so far, the way it has gone for me…

PSB: Definitely, I can’t think of anyone else who has won 13 matches so far this season…

RL: Yeah it’s crazy, I didn’t know how many matches I had won last year when I did have a few…not cue troubles, but I did use a different cue at times…

PSB: I remember you telling me, was it at the UK Championship qualifiers that you had changed your cue?

RL: My first change was the Ireland PTC, then I went to the UK quallies and after that I used it for about eight tournaments. With about three tournaments to go though I gave up on it. I had just rolled the dice and it wasn’t working. Sometimes when you feel it is not working, you have got to go back to what you had and I went back to my old cue, but put a new shaft on and I am happy with it really.

PSB: You have just spoken about the Q School and the system for players coming on the tour now, what was it like when you first came through back in 1990?

RL: That long ago? (laughs). Yeah obviously there are not too many players my age who go back that far, there are only a group of us on the tour now. I remember back in those days I won a final match with Joe Swail to qualify for the main tour when we were both kids.

Back then you had to beat the professional who was on the tour, if you lost to the professional, you didn’t get on, but if you beat the professional, you did get on, but he stayed on either way, no matter what the result was. The way that World Snooker organised it, he couldn’t lose no matter what, so he was almost playing you for practice really.

But luckily enough I won 10-1, I can’t remember who I played against, it was a poor standard of play and once I got on the tour, from then it was very much a case of just trying to climb the rankings as quickly as possible. It was a very different game then, you still had your star players like Stephen Hendry, John Parrot, Jimmy White and Steve Davis, but the standard was just nowhere near as deep.

The standard as it is now, of the 96 players on tour I would argue that virtually all of the 96 would have been in the top 32 no problem back then, that’s how high the standard is. I think that is borne out by the scoring that we see nowadays.

PSB: What was the calendar like back then, I remember that you had blocks of qualifiers at that point?

RL: Yeah we had blocks of qualifiers at places like the Norbreck Castle. You had literally between 8-10 ranking tournaments a season and you went to Blackpool and played in groups of five qualifiers twice a year.

When you went there, if you qualified then you would play the events after that group of qualifying, but if you lost in all five qualifying tournaments, you basically drove away from Blackpool without any tournaments for six months.

It was certainly different then. Snooker has come on a long way since. Our calendar now is brilliant because we have all got so much snooker to play in and I don’t think that anyone in their right mind can complain about the calendar now.

PSB: Yeah, I have been doing my website for four years and I remember initially we could go a couple of months without a tournament and it was sometimes difficult to find something to write about. It was hard to talk about players being in form because they hadn’t played for two months!

RL: Exactly, back in the Prestatyn days I guess. Every time a tournament started, everyone was starting cold and it is much different now. You have got to give World Snooker and Barry Hearn a lot of credit for making the calendar as it is now and giving everyone a fair chance of playing in PTC tournaments in Great Britain and Europe, as well as ranking events.

There are loads of opportunities now and it is really good, for everybody. Even though I fell off last year, I was still delighted to have had a lot of events last year because it gives you a good chance.

PSB: If you had fallen off you could have done the PTCs as an amateur and tried to get back on that way too…

RL: Yeah that’s an option, even as an amateur now you can play as many tournaments as we used to play ranking events because you have got the 10 PTCs, the Q School which is three events and also all your national tournaments, so I suppose for the amateurs now it is still a busy calendar if they choose to play in all of the PTC events.

PSB: Obviously there is the counter-argument about the expenses involved and so on, what is your view on that?

RL: I’m a believer that when you win your opening match in a ranking event, you should be on a prize and that prize should cover your expenses for that event, ie your entry fee and your expenses for that event.

I can understand that at the moment there isn’t enough money to pay too much in that round, but I think that there is enough money in the total prize fund now to filter some of it down to second round losers, because they have won 50% of their matches.

The World and UK Championships when you are coming in at round one, you have got to win two matches to win any prize money and that’s tough. It’s a lot of pressure on the lads and I was there last season in that first round in both of those events and it is a lot of pressure to get some prize money out of them.

PSB: Yeah, there are rumours of players such as Sam Craigie who have allegedly had to give the game up which is a shame, he is a cracking player from what I have seen…

RL: Yeah it’s a terrible shame when you hear stories of people like Bjorn Haneveer who can’t carry on because of the expenses side of it. I think that Robin Hull was another and I have known him for a long time.

But you know what we have got to try and do as a sport is to get the prize money filtering through to the early rounds as well because at the end of the day we are all professionals on the main tour trying to make a living and I think that World Snooker are trying to do that as we speak.

When you win a match, the prize has got to be significant, not something nominal because at the end of the day, we are all there to try and earn a wage.

PSB: What were your memories of that spell in the mid-1990’s when you reached the final of the International Open and had the last 16 run at the Crucible, knocking out a couple of world champions on the way…

RL: Yeah, I also won two WPBSA tournaments that were non-ranking in Finland and China so it was one of my best ever seasons, really good memories. I was playing a young John Higgins in the final of the International Open and John got the better of me, but it was great to play him. I played Stephen Hendry when he was the number one at the time which was great.

Obviously at the 1996 World Championship I beat the likes of Dennis Taylor and John Parrott, two former world champions and then I got on a plane and won the first time that I went to China and then I won in Finland, both WSA tournaments.

They are good memories really and I know that getting those days back again is going to be very difficult, but to be fair I think I am playing as well as I have ever played, even though I am 41 years of age. I’m certainly playing no worse now than I have ever played so hopefully there are some more good memories like that in the future.

PSB: For me, my age I remember snooker from around the mid-90’s really, from the first half of your career, are there any other particular memories or tournaments that spring to mind for you?

RL: Yeah I mean qualifying as a pro, I think I was 18 when I beat Joe Swail when I was the British under-19’s champion and Joe was the English Amateur champion at the time. I beat Joe 5-2 to qualify and that was a tremendous result and one memory.

Then the first time that I played on TV I got to the quarter-finals of my first ranking event and I think I lost to Mike Hallett in the quarters. And then obviously I would say beating Stephen Hendry when he was number one in the world. Stephen for me was the best player we’ve had in the game and to beat him when he was number one in the world on a centre table at a TV stage was a tremendous achievement. They are the types of things that I remember really.

PSB: You spoke earlier about playing John Higgins in the International Open final, was it obvious even back in 1996 that he was going to be something special?

RL: Yeah it was obvious how good John was, it was blatantly obvious that he was going to be world number one, world champion, he was that good, you could see it.

Basically I did one or two things wrong early in the match and John was just gone, that’s how good he was and still is. It was very obvious then but I’d just love to be able to play the likes of John and Ronnie O’Sullivan and Mark Williams in the TV stages more and to be honest I think I will play them more. I’m playing a lot more competitively now than I think I have for five or six years.

PSB: I was going to ask, have you got any particular aspirations or targets now in your snooker career?

RL: I have never been one for that you know, I have never been one to set targets and try to work to them. I don’t know whether that is a good thing or not but I have never wanted to disappoint myself when I haven’t got to the target, so no I don’t really have any targets.

I just want to continue to play the way I know I can play which I have been doing recently. If I can continue to do that, I know that my ranking at the moment is a false ranking because the PTCs over the last two years, with the lack of matches I won and the quality of the first round matches that I had to play, were the reason that I fell off the main tour.

My aspirations are just to continue playing really tough, competitive snooker for a good few years to come, to start reaching more TV stages of tournaments and whatever comes after that is all good really.

PSB: Yeah I do recall, in particular during the first season of the PTCs you had some horror draws didn’t you?

RL: I think that I played Mark Selby twice first game, Robertson twice, people like Nigel Bond, Tom Ford and Liang Wenbo. Every time that I got my cue out of my case, I really did have horror draws. Then in the second season my draws were a little bit better, but were still tough draws, but I think that because I was messing around with my cue, I was on the backfoot as well.

Hopefully from this point forward I can be competitive in the PTCs because I do enjoy them. I do enjoy the best of seven format, playing three matches in a day, but I just haven’t shown that on the table really, not until the first one this season so hopefully I can enjoy more of them this season.

PSB: Do you think it was more to do with the draws or was it the format?

RL: It was definitely the first round draws because I was getting on the plane with the people I travel with such as Dave Harold and Ricky Walden and every time I was getting on a plane to go to Germany or Belgium or whatever…in Belgium I played Barry Hawkins first time out, it was just ridiculous to be honest.

I don’t think that I played a player outside of the top 32 until the second to last tournament and sometimes I would beat a guy like Tom Ford in round one and I would be playing Mark Selby in round two.

I do enjoy the PTCs, they are really good practice over the weekend. I enjoy going to Europe and playing in Poland and Belgium, these places where we are trying to grow the game. I do enjoy playing in front of the crowds abroad so it is just a case of trying to buck my ideas up really and playing my best snooker!

PSB: The other thing that I wanted to ask, obviously there are people who don’t think that you are not the quickest player on the tour, is that something that bothers you?

RL: Yeah, I mean I realise that I am not the quickest player on tour but I’m not going to be am I at 41 years of age? I was a quicker player at 24 or 21 and now I have been on the tour for 20 years. When some of these younger lads have been on the tour for 20 years the same as me, or 23 years and counting, if they are running round the table in their forties then fair play to them, but we will wait and see whether they are because the chances are, a lot of them won’t even be playing snooker then.

I’m proud of the fact that I am still competitive in my forties, I’m very proud of that. I have played snooker through its most competitive period ever and I’m still on the main tour after 23 years and counting.

At times I can slow up heavy and sometimes I can score relatively quickly. In all of the matches I have played this season, I think I have played 16, 17, 18 matches and I haven’t been dragged off once yet.

Maybe sometimes I take my time over the choice of shot, but when I play it, I try and execute it positively. I don’t play negative snooker and there are a few who sometimes get criticised for being slow and negative, and I don’t think that I could ever be accused of being negative. It is just sometimes my games…I enjoy the safety side of it as well and sometimes it turns out to be a real battle.

I play with a lot of pride so when I am behind, I don’t give in and those matches can last four or five hours. If that’s the way then so be it.

So going back to the original question, it doesn’t bother me if people think that I am not the fastest player, I know I’m not the fastest player. But I am really proud of the fact that I am still really competitive in my early forties and we’ll see whether all of those players are playing at that standard then too.

PSB: I have been public before in saying that if they ever brought a shot clock or whatever into a major event then I wouldn’t be writing this site…

RL: I played Liang Wenbo the other night in a match and I ended up winning 5-4 and it was a really good finish to the match. Anybody who would have watched that would have thought that it was really good to watch. It was really, both sides of the game, Liang was clearing up, then I was clearing up, then Liang won a frame from needing snookers and then I had a one visit in the decider. If it’s just one player in and knocking all of the balls in all of the time, that gets a bit boring then doesn’t it? We want to see competition, true competition.

There is a fine line, everyone sees a shot and plays it, Ronnie O’Sullivan sees the shot in a split second and that is why his individual shot time is so quick. Somebody like Peter Ebdon sees that same shot slower than Ronnie and is a lot more deliberate. I am obviously in the Peter Ebdon timescale and I don’t deny that, but you do need variance.

The Jack Lisowskis and Judd Trumps are also brilliant for the game, for the youngsters to watch with the quick scoring and that, so you need both.

PSB: As you say, you talk about Peter Ebdon, his shot selection is actually very unusual, he’s quite attacking isn’t he?

RL: He is very positive, he will never refuse a shot that can get him in to win the match. But Peter might be playing Ronnie and taking 24 seconds a shot and Ronnie might be taking 17. Peter sees the shot at that pace and I am in that bracket with the likes of Alan McManus, Dave Harold, Fergal O’Brien, those types of players. We’re all in that second bracket, we have to fight hard.

I am just trying to enjoy it now, I have been in the game a long time and have been on the verge of retiring. I know that I am going to retire eventually, sooner rather than later, so just trying to enjoy it really, every season and every tournament.

PSB: Having played so much snooker, so early in the season, obviously there are the likes of Mark Davis, Barry Hawkins, Ricky Walden who have been winning, everybody is going to have a dip during the season, do you think that there is a danger of burnout or is it just a case of picking and choosing your events?

RL: You are definitely right, I think that there is a massive danger of burn out for all of the players and I am in that bracket. I haven’t really had a break since last season, after the World Championship I made the decision to go into Q School so I just carried on playing snooker for a month. I had to carry on because otherwise I wouldn’t have got through.

As an example, this week we have got two weeks off now until the next PTC and now I won’t play snooker all week. I’m actually going away for the weekend with the family. I am one of them players who will have breaks in the middle of the season and I will put my cue in a cupboard for a week or two weeks when I can and I don’t play snooker at all. I’m not one of them who has to hit a ball every day and I never have been.

That’s why I think now at my early forties, I can still play whereas other players my age have retired when they have fallen off the tour because maybe they have burned themselves out practising every day of their lives.

I’ve always been a player that has tried to treat it as a job, Monday to Friday and if I can afford the weekend off, I will never play snooker at a weekend. Obviously if there is an important event coming up then I will play that weekend and I think that is why I have always stayed relatively fresh.

Plus I’ve never put myself under too much pressure, I sort of roll with it a little bit and I see how it falls and if it goes well for me, I don’t get too high and if it goes bad for me, I don’t get too low really. I handle the ups and downs.

But there will definitely be burn out for some players and it will happen to me at some point in the season, my results will get jaded and I think that all you can do is come away, rest and try to prepare properly for the next event.

PSB: Can you see a situation where you will skip a few PTCs for example, or is it just a case of entering everything because every point counts?

RL: At the moment every point counts because it is earning potential as well, but to be honest with you if I had a great season and I could afford to have a tournament off and it wouldn’t affect me ranking-wise and it wouldn’t hurt me wages-wise, then I would certainly consider that.

You do need to protect your form and to go into those UK Championships, World Championships, feeling fresh and up for it, you definitely need your batteries recharged for those.

But at this moment I anticipate playing in virtually everything to try and be competitive because you know yourself, if you miss one tournament then everybody quickly catches up with you.

PSB: From an outsider I have had the perception that like Stephen Hendry perhaps, players will peak in their mid-twenties before entering relative decline in their 30’s, but you have players such as Marcus Campbell and Mark Davis now playing their best snooker heading into their forties…

RL: It doesn’t make sense does it? It’s a little bit like myself, I know I am playing the best I have played for five or six years and maybe that is down to a change of cue as well, but I do feel more competitive than I have for a long time.

Why is that? I should be better at 33 than at 40, but there is no rhyme or reason and for someone like Mark or Marcus, it is nice to see because they have been good servants for the game haven’t they and are great players.

PSB: And Steve Davis too, he played so well last week to qualify for Shanghai, three 90+ breaks or something…

RL: It’s brilliant. Every time somebody doubts Steve Davis he comes out and plays great the next event doesn’t he? He played against Andrew Higginson who has played really well for three or four years, so every credit to Steve.

But if you are a class player like Steve is, you don’t lose it, it just must be harder to find, but when he hits his form, it’s still as good as it has ever been, even at his age. He’s an example for all of us, tremendous.

PSB: From your point of view, you have said that you are playing as well as you have in a while, but I always found it interesting, particularly in the old days so to speak, where you had that bracket of players such as yourself in the top 48 and then you had teenagers coming through and having to beat you guys to progress, it must have been such a learning experience for them to play people with your experience…

RL: Yeah exactly, we are playing a certain style aren’t we and players like Judd Trump, I played him three or four times as he was coming through and we had some smashing matches. Judd must have been leaving the venue some days thinking what’s all this about playing Rod Lawler? Obviously Judd was always going to get to the top of the game, where he is now and he just had to go through playing against the likes of myself, Dave Harold, Ian McCulloch and Marcus to learn his trade really.

PSB: Exactly, the youngsters wouldn’t have played anybody with the tactical game of those players that you have just mentioned while they were on the amateur circuit and coming through, so it must be a big challenge for them…

RL: Yeah they won’t have seen any of that sort of, hard, grizzled snooker and you don’t want them to change their game. It’s like young Luca Brecel, you don’t want him to change his game, you just want them to be able to battle against that sort of play.

Once he can battle against it like Judd can now, then you are away with that sort of talent that those lads have got, the likes of Jack, Luca and Judd, they have got a hell of a lot of talent, so you don’t want them to change their games, you just want them to toughen up and that is what Judd has done now. That is why he is so high in the rankings. It’s our job to make sure they have a tough time, it’s our duty to snooker! (laughs).

As always, thanks to Rod for taking time out to chat to me for this article and best of luck to him for the rest of the season. Like many, he will be in action again at this weekend’s UKPTC2 event in Gloucester…