In one of the iconic scenes from Pulp Fiction, 'Royale with cheese', Vincent Vega, having recently returned from Amsterdam, explains to his partner Jules what Europe is like:
Vincent: "But you know what the funniest thing about Europe is?"
Vincent: "It's the little differences. A lotta the same shit we got here, they got there, but there they're a little different."
I was reminded of this exchange when, for the first time in a while, watching darts on ITV instead of Sky; it wasn't worse, just strangely different - Mason and Warriner-Little instead of Mardle and Harrington, for example; no John McDonald giving it six-nowt to announce the players; different signature tune.
Lordy though, when you saw the line-up for the Quarters you knew why they called it the Masters - Taylor, Lewis, Wade, Whitlock, MVG, RVB, Thornton and Newton. If you were asked to draw up an eight man strong Fantasy Darts team (now there's an idea...) that's probably a good approximation of what it would look like.
Some might say that Newton is the odd one out in that dream team, but I think that would be unfair; Newton IS a terrific player, he just hasn't yet displayed that exciting, explosive genius that routinely, or even occasionally, wins major titles. If MVG were a drag racer - fantastic in a sprint under the right conditions - Newton would be a Transit van - solid, reliable, lacking in fire works, but you can't deny it gets the basic job done time after time. Last night proved that if the Warrior needs to develop the explosive sprint capability, Mighty Mike still needs to work on reliably going the distance.
All the drama last night was in the first and last matches, as both Thornton and Newton were swiftly and brutally dealt with by the Stoke posse. It was not that Thornton, especially, or Newton really did anything wrong. In any other context their performances would have been fine, but against Taylor and Lewis in that sort of mood "fine" was about as effective as threatening Ronnie Kray with a cocktail stick. Lewis didn't even miss a dart at a double until around the 8th leg, making ton plus checkouts look ludicrously easy; Newton stood toe-to-toe with Taylor for the first couple of legs, but the rest of the match resembled Rocky Balboa's first fight with Clubber Lang. Despite the unfortunate imagery conjured up by a commentator's announcement that Taylor and Newton were "about to get it on", both matches were throroughly enjoyable master classes.
The final match of the evening took place with the knowledge that, seemingly for the first time since Woolly Mammoth roamed, Raymond van Barneveld was no longer the Dutch no. 1. As van Gerwen sailed to a 4-1 lead, one could be forgiven for thinking that the reason why was all too obvious. Barneveld, like Taylor, however, is just too good and too experienced to ever be written off. Van Gerwen swiftly began to go off the boil (again showing a problem with consistency which, if he's ever going to be "the next Phil Taylor" he's going to have to address) under relentless pressure from Barney.
It should have been 3-2 at the break, but Barney slipped up and MVG pounced. It was as if MVG had spilled Barney's pint on a Friday night out in Newcastle: Barney came back out after the break and in a superb, 180-riddled (6 all told) display went from 4-1 down to 8-5 victor. Incredibly, at one point when Barney wanted 120 to check out, instead of shanghai twenties he managed to hit two trebles by mistake (I have trouble doing it deliberately) and bust the score. I was expecting that sort of mistake to have disastrous effects on Barney's morale, but showing tremendous bottle he stepped up the very next leg and made the 120 check out. RVB v. Lewis tonight has cracking potential.
Most dramatic of all was the first match of the evening, a tight, edgy and crowd-fuelled affair between regular rivals Simon Whitlock and James Wade. Wade spent as much of the match fighting the crowd as he did Whitlock, and it did seem to have an effect on his performance for a while. That said, when he missed 3 darts at double ten, even with the crowd booing and cheering each one they were three brilliant darts and he was just the wrong side of the wire each time. Wade was clearly rattled at times, and did react; was he right to? Lots has been said about this. Ultimately, it's always best to let your darts do the talking - Lewis, despite playing the local favourite, got barely a boo. Then again, whilst a hostile and rowdy crowd is part of the excitement of the game, there is a major difference between a hostile crowd and a few trouble-makers standing right at the foot of the stage screaming abuse to deliberately distract you from barely 20 feet away, and a few people were ejected by security.
Wade did react, but you cannot deny the man has bottle; firstly, he stayed on stage during the break, which is a pretty defiant gesture, then he began a truly classy fightback from 7-4 down back to 7 all. Whitlock had his chances but failed to take them, missing match darts at 7-5. Wade, however, kept his nerve magnificently; having survived match darts again in the 15th and deciding leg, he stepped straight up and with incredible hutzpah threw in 25-16-Bull to take a well-deserved 8-7 victory.
Whitlock stormed off stage without a backward glance, whilst Wade smiled and waved after him. Did Wade celebrate too excessively when that Bull went in? Not in my humble opinion, after what he'd been through with the crowd and fighting his way back to get there. It was a bit more than usual, but hardly excessive. There's been bad blood and rivalry between these two for a while, which all adds to the drama - it's a sporting contest, not a hippy love-in, after all - but Whitlock's reaction, after he'd had the crowd on his side all match, looked frankly ungracious.
Anyhoo, looking forward to tonight :o) You'd have to say a Taylor-Lewis final is statistically the most likely outcome, but with these four players anything can happen.
Oh, and performance of the evening, for me, went to the dancing man in the red hat who could just be seen being wrestled off the stage after RVB v. MVG :o)