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Last Updated: Friday, 15 April, 2005, 11:31 GMT 12:31 UK
Don't give up your day job
Is darts really the easiest sport to become a world champion at? Yes, says Justin Irwin, who quit his £50,000 job to take up the sport. Here, BBC News website reporter Jennifer Quinn, who's never thrown sharp objects in goodwill before, decided to put his theory to the test.

The problems began at my feet, and they continued north from there.

Former champion Rod Harrington shook his head at my high-heeled boots. "Boy, you've got some real toe pickers on, there."

I didn't really know what he meant. But that became a recurring theme for the evening.

Rod is an ex-world number one who's now coaching and managing Colin Lloyd, currently the number-one ranked darts player in the world. After contacting him about Justin Irwin, who recently quit his £50,000-a-year job to try to become a darts world champion, the pair offered to show me - a real rookie from Canada, where ice hockey is king - just how difficult the game can be.

Jennifer Quinn and Rod Harrington
So what are these, then? Jennifer gets to grip with sport

I've never really played before - might have inadvertently done so at a high-school party but that doesn't count, does it? - so I was a pretty much blank canvas, a darts sponge, ready to have the best players in the world look at my form and determine if they could make a champion of me.

We met at the Duke of Wellington, a nice little pub in Essex, near Chelmsford, for some coaching. I was encouraged by this. Any coaching that occurs in a pub is OK with me. And I was further pleased by the fact that Colin was wearing an Anaheim Mighty Ducks hockey sweater. How welcoming!

Now, Rod wasn't promising great things for me, but he was willing to take a look. Apparently, what he saw wasn't pretty.

Stand and deliver

My stance? All wrong. Everything - hips, shoulders...even my wrist - was too far back. And those pointy-toed boots (fantastic purchase, got them on sale in Los Angeles) were preventing me from balancing properly, the first rule of order for any good darts player.

It's a very simple game, and I think that's why people slag it off as being easy to play
Rod Harrington
Colin, meanwhile, was laughing as I feebly flung my first arrow towards the board. It landed in the wall, at about knee height. Which, I have to say, was not particularly encouraging. But Rod was.

"It's a very simple game, and I think that's why people slag it off as being easy to play," he says, taking the darts from my hand and reassembling them to compliment my, err, style. "I do get annoyed when people don't give it credit for the ability of the player. Other sportspeople give us credit. But people in the pub go, 'Ahh, darts players'."

All this has Justin Irwin a bit worried. When I telephoned to quiz him about his plan, and relay that his bravado had insulted many professional darts players, the former charity director was eager to set the record straight.

"I don't think it's an easy game. I think it's a simple game, and that's what I like about it," he says. "I think I am physically capable of hitting the treble 20 and that I am physically capable of hitting the treble 20 three times.

"If I tried to play football for four hours a day for a year, I'd get nowhere. If I play darts for four hours a day for a year, I might get somewhere," he adds. "I'm not pretending it's an easy game. If it was, I'd be much better at it."

If it's any consolation to him, I'm not very good at it, either. But then, I'm not quitting my day job to go pro. Either way, Rod and Colin weren't all together too pleased that Mr Irwin thinks he can step up to the champion's oche in a fraction of the time it took them to get there.

Slings and arrows

Colin started playing when he was 11 and has been full-time for the past year. Rod, nicknamed "The Prince of Style", was a professional footballer before turning to darts in the early 80s.

One thing's for certain: they won't have to worry about me waltzing in and taking the pro circuit by storm.

After the adjustment to my arrows - credit, where it's due please, for my use of darts slang - and some coaching from Rod (foot sideways against the oche; knee bent; weight on back foot; arched back; aim for top half of board) I'm getting the hang of things. Every so often, things do go awry.

One arrow hit the spotlight in the ceiling with what was, I must say, a rather satisfying clang while another one lodged in the floor.

Justin Irwin
Justin Irwin hopes to play with the best (ie., not me)

Another of my many problems is that when I was done throwing, I just stood and stared, wondering where it all went wrong. My inaction generally prompted Rod to walk up to the board, collect my darts, and bring them back to where I still stood. That was until he reminded me that there are no caddies in darts.

Rod is a director of the Professional Darts Corporation, and as a former pro he's trying to build a professional tour circuit similar to golf's PGA or tennis's ATP tournaments.

There are plenty of fans out there, as well, even if before this evening I wasn't one of them. "People respect me for what I do," Colin says, recalling the fans that ask for his autograph and who clamour to be able to hang out with the players at tournaments. "They come upstairs, and they just want to stand in the room with you.

Professional respect

"They want to rub shoulders with the likes of me," he adds, somewhat incredulously, despite the fact that he's currently ranked number one in the world, ahead of the legendary Phil "The Power" Taylor. "And I'm just same old Colin. What you see is what you get."

Colin's life has certainly changed since he quit his job on the building site, where he was working for £60 a day. Last year, he earned more than £150,000 through tournaments and exhibitions and the like. That's good, because it means he can have a good time and his girlfriend - also a darts player - can do some serious shopping. The downside is that because he's classed as a professional sportsman, his car insurance rates have skyrocketed.

Rod Harrington, Jennifer Quinn and Colin Lloyd
This is how it's done

Luckily, I don't drive. I don't mind a drink though, and, even from my limited knowledge of the sport, that's never been a drawback for any putative darts champ.

But Rod is keen to play down the cliché of beer-bellied men, cigarette and pint in one hand, darts in the other. He takes umbrage with the perception that all darts players do is drink.

Because tournaments take so long, he says, it would be next to impossible to drink the whole time and still play with the skill required: "Try drinking for 12 hours straight. You'd not be able to stand."

Meanwhile, things were looking up for me. Rod encouraged me to aim for the top half of the board, and the darts, astonishingly, began avoiding the ceiling and the floor and were landing, kind of, where I had aimed them. One even hit the treble 20, which I thought was pretty fantastic until I saw Colin hit three of them, and that was when he was throwing his darts backwards.

Two hours after we started, I was spent. My head was spinning with darts knowledge, my back was aching from all the adjustments and as much as I hate to admit it, the boots were making my feet sore.

In the words of Jim Bowen, presenter of the much lamented Bullseye game show, and thus the man who did perhaps more to promote darts to the masses than anyone else, it was time to collect my BFH: bus fare home.

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