DESPITE Brian Smith’s protestations otherwise, Bradford Bulls’ game at Wakefield Trinity Wildcats today is like a cup final for the visitors.
In all fairness, it should be just the same for Smith’s Trinity side, too, even if he argues it is just another chance to make their mark.
The Australian is too long in the tooth to play this any other way; he knows there is great pressure on Wakefield to perform this afternoon, even more so than their opponents who require at least one ‘big’ scalp to escape the Championship.
Wakefield have won just one league game since the end of February. They lost their opening Qualifiers fixture at Salford last week. Lose their second against a fired-up Bulls ready to charge back into the elite and you fear the wheels could fall off fast.
The Qualifiers have, essentially, been set up to work towards the Million Pound Game on the weekend of October 3-4 – the all-or-nothing battle for the lucrative last, remaining place among the elite for 2016.
Sheer glory or utter misery encapsulated within 80 minutes.
Yet, for Wakefield, a club who famously emerged victorious from the last such contest against Castleford Tigers in 2006 – admittedly an unofficial affair as it was a straight shoot-out for points at the bottom of Super League – this afternoon’s contest at Belle Vue is just as gargantuan.
There is no doubting that Smith has instilled some good habits into that badly-faltering Wakefield side since his arrival in June, but they have still only won once since he flew in and the good spells are maddeningly too fleeting when they arrive.
Trinity desperately require an 80-minute performance against a Bradford side that, on paper at least, looks every inch a Super League side.
Lee Gaskell has matured into a polished, game-controlling and deciding No 6 who – if Bulls do not go up via the seven-match series – will surely eventually return to the top flight with someone else.
In the likes of Paul Clough, Adam Sidlow, Jay Pitts and Dale Ferguson they have seasoned pros while Danny Addy, Jake Mullaney and Adam O’Brien would all be courted by superior teams.
They have the belief they can get back to the top of the game in Bradford colours, though, and witnessing their club bring in someone of the calibre of Dane Nielsen, the Queensland State of Origin centre, in readiness for the challenges ahead speaks volumes.
It is not worth thinking about what could happen if financially-challenged Wakefield did fall out of Super League for the first time. Would they have the wherewithal, or even the desire, to recover or would they be forever lost?
A lot of hard work via Michael Carter and his team has gone into steadying the ship there and it would be a shame if it all came to nothing. That is why today is like a cup final for them; they have to win in reality, and get a surge of much-needed positivity.
Bradford, though, are not without their own pressures; they will have seen this as the game they, too, must win to get an advantage in that race for the three automatic qualification spots and, thereby, avoiding the lottery of that fourth versus fifth nerve-shredder.
Either way, it seems organisers have found themselves getting a double helping of the end game they always planned.