Fearless Rock relishing Van Gerwen showdown at Cazoo Grand Slam

Josh Rock (Taylor Lanning/PDC)

Three-time Grand Slam champion Michael van Gerwen will take on Northern Irish sensation Josh Rock in a show-stopping clash at the Cazoo Grand Slam of Darts on Thursday, as the second round action concludes in Wolverhampton.

Day Six of the £650,000 event will feature the remaining four last 16 tussles at the Aldersley Leisure Village, headlined by Van Gerwen and Rock’s first competitive meeting.

Van Gerwen – who won three successive Grand Slam titles from 2015-2017 - secured top spot in Group G after claiming comprehensive round-robin wins over Nathan Rafferty and Luke Woodhouse.

The Dutchman’s 104.8 average wasn’t enough to overcome an inspired Ross Smith in the pair’s final group stage tussle on Tuesday, but he still heads into the knockout stages in ominous form.

Rock, meanwhile, recovered from his opening Group H defeat to Ryan Searle by registering wins over Scott Williams and Luke Humphries to progress to the last 16 on his Grand Slam debut.

The 21-year-old has been a revelation since claiming his Tour Card in January, winning five Development Tour titles, posting astronomical averages on the ProTour and winning his first senior PDC title at Players Championship 28 last month.

“I definitely didn’t expect to be in this position at the start of the year,” admitted Rock, who only made his televised debut last month.

“Michael has won every single major there is, and in my eyes he’s the second-best player of all time, so I’m looking forward to playing him on that stage.

“We get on well when we’re practising together, but this is the first time we’ve ever played each other, and it’s over a longer format, so I can’t wait for it.

“I’m not scared of playing him, and Michael won’t be too excited to be playing me, I know he won’t.”

In the same section of the draw, European Champion Ross Smith will take on Group H winner Humphries in another stellar showdown.

Humphries averaged 107 to topple Ryan Searle in his stand-out performance of the round-robin phase on Sunday, while Smith produced the performance of the tournament so far in his 5-4 victory over Van Gerwen.

The 33-year-old was already assured of qualification ahead of the tie, but he reaffirmed his credentials by averaging 108 and landing nine 180s – a Group Stage record at the Grand Slam.

“I wanted to show everyone what I can do against the best in the world,” said Smith, who is bidding to lift back-to-back TV titles.

“Hopefully I can kick on now. I’m loving my darts and I’m so happy with life in general, so I just want to keep going.

“There’s no reason why I can’t win this tournament. I’ve already done it before in Dortmund.”

Elsewhere, Jonny Clayton will continue his bid for Grand Slam glory against Scottish debutant Alan Soutar, who came through Group E at the expense of his compatriot Peter Wright.

Soutar defeated Fallon Sherrock 5-2 in his final round-robin fixture to keep his qualification hopes alive, and Nathan Aspinall’s victory over Wright by the same scoreline saw the World Champion eliminated.

Clayton guaranteed himself top spot with whitewash wins over Leonard Gates and Jermaine Wattimena in Group F, only for Damon Heta to end his 100% record in resounding fashion.

Soutar has claimed a host of big scalps since joining the professional ranks last year, and the 44-year-old firefighter now has a first televised quarter-final within his sights.

“I’m into the world’s top 40 now which is tremendous for me, so I’m absolutely buzzing,” admitted the Scot, who made the last 16 at the World Championship on his Alexandra Palace debut.

“To be the only Scotsman left in this tournament is mad when I’ve looked up to Gary [Anderson], Peter [Wright] and John Henderson for such a long time, so I’ll try my best to fly the flag.”

In the evening’s curtain-raiser, Aspinall and Jermaine Wattimena will collide after confirming their qualification on Tuesday night.

Wattimena breezed past American star Gates to reach the knockout stages for the first time in his career, and the resurgent Dutchman is now just one win away from a place in his second TV quarter-final.

Aspinall – a runner-up at last month’s World Grand Prix – battled back from the brink after losing to Soutar in his Group E opener, relinquishing just three legs in wins over Sherrock and Wright to snatch top spot.

“I think it shows the type of player I am – when it comes down to the nitty gritty, I’ve done it on so many occasions,” claimed Aspinall, a Grand Slam quarter-finalist in 2020.

“I do normally produce big performances or big moments and I take that as a massive positive, because I’ve got the belief and the will to do it.”

The quarter-finals then get underway on Friday evening, as two-time Wolverhampton semi-finalist Michael Smith meets Masters champion Joe Cullen, before reigning three-time champion Gerwyn Price takes on 2012 winner Raymond van Barneveld.