TAURANGA - I thought I was a bit of a gun at snooker. During my formative days, I used to wag school lessons and head for the downtown snooker parlour in New Plymouth with a mate.

One day a teacher arrived and saw us playing in our school uniforms. We got away with a severe warning rather than a suspension - obviously he saw some ability in us. Thirty eight years later, I've still retained my interest in snooker.

The other night at Tauranga Club in Devonport Towers, Dene O'Kane - New Zealand's best ever snooker player - showed me the way.

I break and duly get the ball back down the table and right behind the yellow. One of the best players in the world is snookered. He tries this fancy screw shot around the table and misses all the reds - and I lead 4-0.

That'll show him. But I make my first fatal mistake. I don't hit the white ball hard enough playing for safety and it cushions off a red and stays up the table in the black zone.

Darn it, I knew straight away, it's going to be a long night sitting watching Dene ply his trade.

I lost count of the number of reds and blacks he sinks as the points tick over in his favour. I'm not the least perturbed; I was at the club to watch a master at work.

Dene worked the white ball like it was on a string - he top spun, under spun and side spun, left and right around the table. He played soft shots, power shots. He made sure he was always in position to sink the next shot.

He told me that he was self-taught; he went to the library and dragged out the books that explained how to play snooker.

Dene, now 43, began playing seriously when he was 16 and he was on the world professional tour between 1984 and 2001.

But, as he flew out of Auckland yesterday - after visiting his mother Lesley in Tauranga - he was taking a flight that no other snooker player had attempted.

Five-and-a-half years after his retirement, he was making a comeback on the pro tour after qualifying as the reigning Oceania champion. He had also won the World Masters (over 40 years) title twice.

He will be joining 95 other professionals in seven ranking events in Britain, Middle East and Asia between October and April. (His first tournament on the circuit is in north Wales, starting on October 31).

His goal was to reach the top 32 and return to the Crucible in Sheffield for the closing televised rounds of the world championship.

I was there watching him in 1987, in the front row reporting back to New Zealand.

It wasn't what I wanted when the crowd favourite Jimmy White jumped ahead nine frames to nothing - but the indomitable Kiwi spirit fired up and Dene won the next five frames. "I gave him a scare winning five in a row - and if he didn't clean up from three reds in the next frame then it could have been all different," said Dene.

White won 13-6 and it would be the second time Dene finished in the last eight of the world championships - he also lost to world No 1 Stephen Hendry 13-6 in the quarter-finals in 1992.

The Crucible is a lion's den. It's an amphitheatre, it's small and highly charged. The crowd is so close they are almost sitting on top of the players. Concentration is paramount.

"You can hear the elderly lady unwrapping her boiled sweet in the back row - that's how electric it is," said Dene. But he wants to be re- charged. "One of the things I thought about when I re-qualified (for the pro tour) through the Oceania championships last year was to get back and play at the Crucible. It's a big buzz; it's what championship play is all about."

Dene returns to a new stage - his contemporaries like Jimmy White, Steve Davis and Dennis Taylor have been overtaken by the new young guns. But that doesn't faze Dene.

'I won't lack experience and nerves won't get the best of me. I know the standard of play has improved but once I get over there and re- climatise, who knows what will happen.

"There's nothing for me in New Zealand and I have to give it a go."

And therein lies the moral: Seeing the way he works the white ball on the green felt he has all the class, and style, in the world. I rate him as one of our best sportsmen.

But he's angry about the lack of national funding for his sport in this country. He wanted to develop a youth programme in his hometown Auckland but, instead, he's taken a lonely flight back across the world to recapture his dreams on the pro tour.

He told the audience at Tauranga Club that hopefully they would see him on television playing at the Crucible.

I wished him well as I dropped him back at his mother's place in Bayfair later in the evening.

Hopefully, I gave him the confidence he needed - for he just edged me out, 125-7.

- BAY OF PLENTY TIMES