Ronnie O’Sullivan faces an immediate stiff test of his Crucible title credentials after being warned there are no “numpties” at the Betfred World Championship.
The five-time champion must tackle Scotland’s Stephen Maguire, a former world number two, on the opening weekend of the tournament.
Maguire indicated this week that O’Sullivan was a player he would want to avoid in the first round.
That sentiment was almost certainly shared by O’Sullivan, given Glaswegian Maguire has twice reached the semi-finals in Sheffield, but the pair will do battle on Saturday and Sunday.
And at the end of a season in which O’Sullivan has repeatedly labelled players in the lower reaches of the rankings as “numpties”, the draw serves as a reminder to the 42-year-old of the class in the World Championship field.
Jason Ferguson, chairman of snooker’s world governing body, said: “There are no numpties on the tour. To get to this stage, what you have here is the cream of the crop.
“Every player that’s come here has earned the right to be here, through long-format matches, in a proper event and proper conditions.”
Ferguson said the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association stopped short of reprimanding O’Sullivan because none of his fellow players had lodged a formal complaint about his dig.
“It is a disappointing comment. He’s the greatest player of all time to watch on the table. Sometimes off the table he’s a little bit controversial, but all in all he’s been pretty good this year,” Ferguson said.
“Our action comes around whether we get complaints. If we do get formal complaints, the WPBSA will look at those and decide whether formal action needs to be taken.”
Maguire battled through three best-of-19 qualifiers at Sheffield’s English Institute of Sport to secure a 15th consecutive appearance at the Crucible.
He is battle-hardened and knows what to expect from O’Sullivan and the drama that invariably follows snooker’s biggest crowd favourite, rating him on another level to the rest of the field.
“The only one that’s different is Ronnie,” Maguire said.
“Ronnie brings a different atmosphere and a completely different game, all the rest of them are very similar.
“You know the kind of crowd Ronnie brings and it’s always a special occasion.”
O’Sullivan is bidding to become the first player to earn £1million in a season, needing to reach the final to achieve the feat.
Defending champion Mark Selby must tackle the experienced Joe Perry in his opener which will span morning and evening sessions on Saturday.
The draw was delayed by two hours to midday due to technical difficulties, an early hiccup for the organisers.
Judd Trump was given an opener against English debutant Chris Wakelin, while four-time champion John Higgins starts against another newcomer in Thailand’s Thepchaiya Un-Nooh.
The other two first-time qualifiers, Liam Highfield and Lyu Haotian, play seeds Mark Allen and Marco Fu respectively.
Ding Junhui will play fellow Chinese cueman Xiao Guodong first, Mark Williams takes on Jimmy Robertson, Neil Robertson faces Robert Milkins and Shaun Murphy tackles Jamie Jones.
First round draw: M Selby v J Perry; M Allen v L Highfield; K Wilson v M Stevens; S Murphy v J Jones; J Higgins v Thepchaiya Un-Nooh; S Bingham v J Lisowski; L Brecel v R Walden; J Trump v C Wakelin; Ding Junhui v Xiao Guodong; A McGill v R Day; M Fu v Lyu Haotian; B Hawkins v S Carrington; M Williams v J Robertson; N Robertson v R Milkins; A Carter v G Dott; R O’Sullivan v S Maguire.