BRADFORD Bulls play their penultimate Championship regular round tomorrow in a game which, seemingly, everyone has been talking about ever since their first fixture of the season in February.
Ambitious Leigh Centurions, the vibrant second-tier leaders who tend to excite and antagonise in similar measures, are the visitors to Odsal for a match that arguably holds more gravitas than the sole Super League encounter of the afternoon between Wakefield and Castleford.
There are plenty of reasons for this. If we rewind to that opening game of the campaign, when Leigh – the champions and clearly then the most advanced team in the competition – hosted Bradford, the three-times World Club champions newly-relegated from Super League, it was fizzing with incidents both on and off the field. Leigh, who moved to full-time status last December in a bid to win promotion to the elite for 2016, prospered 36-24 albeit after the Bulls imploded to let a 20-6 interval slip.
Granted, Bradford had some mitigation; their opponents were labelled “thuggish” by Bulls captain Chev Walker after a fractious encounter awash with foul play and including six yellow cards.
On the sidelines, Derek Beaumont, Leigh’s owner and “rugby director”, was later fined £2,000 – half suspended until the end of this year – for his behaviour which was deemed “prejudicial to the interests of the game.”
Anyone witnessing him hurling persistent, unnecessary verbal abuse at non-playing members of Bradford’s squad and staff must still wonder what is more absurd; Beaumont’s bizarre antics or the RFL’s leniency in their eventual punishment.
Regardless, it set the tone for the campaign and Bulls certainly knew they would not have a comfortable passage back into Super League.
The rivals have been neck-and-neck almost ever since, although Bradford have lost two of their last three games – amid three defeats all season – to leave tomorrow’s clash a little anti-climatic.
It should have been a table-topping decider but the visitors, two points clear with a game in hand, now know, after Bradford’s 32-30 loss against Sheffield Eagles last Sunday, they can afford to slip up tomorrow and probably even against Dewsbury on Wednesday and still finish first if they win their last game versus Doncaster.
Leigh, whose only defeat has been at London Broncos when their club-record 27 game winning run came to an end in June, still want victory at Odsal more than anything.
That is especially so after Beaumont was apparently denied a request for a ticket to watch a game there recently.
Walker, the former Great Britain centre who hopes to lead Bradford back to the elite, understands why there is such hyperbole around the game, stating: “Looking back, ‘thuggish’ was probably the wrong term to use in high emotion.
“But that last game was a sham compared to what league is really like; the sportsmanship and just the way they conducted themselves was what I was getting at.
“We weren’t blameless; we retaliated. But that is the difference; you’d never see those scenes in Super League. Don’t get me wrong. They scored some great tries in that second half but our heads had gone by then.”
Will that happen again tomorrow?
“I hope not,” said the 32-year-old. “That will be my message to the squad and (coach) Jimmy (Lowes) has touched on it a little this week.
“The teams that don’t react to Leigh tend to do well – Warrington just got on with the job against them in the Challenge Cup and got the win.”
Missing out on pole position does, though, irritate the Bulls.
“It would have been nice to do that and finish top given what Leigh have done over the last two years,” admitted Walker.
“We’ve beaten ourselves at times this year, let ourselves down and played a bit dumb.
“We’ve had some disruption in our halves in the last few weeks and that has affected us.
“But, regardless of the fact we’re playing Leigh, we need to overcome that and find some form for the Middle Eights.
“Our main goal is getting back up and I’d like to think we won’t choke and we’ll have the mentality to do it. This should bring the best out of us.”