STEPHEN Bunting has bowed out of the World Darts Championship at the first-round stage for a second successive year, writes Andrew Simpson.

However the St Helens star was optimistic afterwards that his performance in a 3-1 defeat against World Youth Champion Dimitri Van den Bergh is proof that his best form is returning.

He hit four 180s and three ton-plus finishes, including a maximum checkout, at Alexandra Palace in London.

“I’m disappointed to lose, obviously, but I can hold my head up high,” said Bunting, who took the British Darts Organisation (BDO) crown at Lakeside in 2014.

“In defeat, I can take a lot of positives.

“I felt good up there, and after the year I’ve had I’ll take that all day long.

“I’ve put in a much better performance than I did 12 months ago, and I feel so much better.”

In-form Van den Bergh averaged 104.17 – the fifth highest for a first-round tie in the tournament’s history – and hit five 180s.

The Belgian took the opening leg in 13 darts, only for Bunting to respond with a 100 outshot before punishing his opponents misses by pinning double eight.

Van den Bergh landed a maximum to break back, then took a deciding leg to take the first set.

He blitzed through a high-scoring second set with a huge 116 average, although Bunting pinched one leg with a brilliant 170 finish, to lead 2-0.

Bunting rallied in the third, taking it against throw, and began the fourth with a sensational 144 checkout.

He was a favourite to level the contest when he moved 2-1 in front only for Van den Bergh, who defeated Josh Payne in Minehead last month to take the World Youth Championship title, to recover his composure and claim a place in the last 32.

“Dimitri is a man in form and he was always going to be difficult to catch from 2-0 down,” reflected Bunting.

“I tried chipping away though, and almost took it to a final set.”

A second St Helens thrower, Dave Chisnall, begins his bid on Sunday evening against Dutchman Vincent van der Voort.

Meanwhile Michael Smith will have to wait until Wednesday, when he takes on debutant Steve Lennon.