IT WAS once a definitive image of the bright, new summer era.
In the opening decade of Super League, the intense rivalry between Leeds Rhinos and Bradford Bulls provided an ongoing, thrilling narrative.
When Michael Withers’s memorable drop goal sealed a 19-18 victory for Bradford at Odsal in 1999, the competition’s attendance record was smashed as an enthralled crowd of 24,020 fans watched the drama unfold.
The West Yorkshire derby foes were locked in a fascinating battle for the inaugural League Leaders’ Shield in 2003, Bradford just edging it on their way to a ‘treble’ that also saw them defeat Leeds in the Challenge Cup final.
Next came back-to-back Grand Finals in 2004 and 2005, Leeds first, then Bradford taking the spoils, and it seemed – with star names like Lesley Vainikolo and Kevin Sinfield – their classic encounters would just run and run.
Yet tomorrow night, these giants of the sport will meet in Super League for the final time, at least for the foreseeable future.
The sad plummeting of four-time Super League champions Bradford is complete after years of financial mismanagement resulted in their relegation being confirmed less than a fortnight ago. Instead of preparing a title run-in when they head to Headingley, they’re readying themselves for the Championship.
“I’m sure it will be emotional,” said Leeds prop Jamie Peacock, the ex-England captain who has served both clubs with such distinction.
“Going back four or five years, Bradford fans will never have imagined being in this position or that their next major derby would be the one with Halifax.
“I know when I left Bulls at the end of 2005 there was no chance I ever felt they would get relegated.
“I perhaps thought they may struggle and become a bit of a mid-table club given the number of players who were leaving at the end of that season, but never to this extent.
“They’ve stumbled lower and lower and now actually hit rock bottom.”
Peacock, of course, lifted the Super League trophy as Bulls captain in 2005, his third success with the club for whom he played more than 200 times.
He has witnessed the derby from both sides, too, becoming an integral part of a Leeds team now established as the most successful in Super League history.
Peacock donated £800 to his former club when their financial plight first came to light in March 2012, part of a huge effort that saw generous supporters help fill a £1m shortfall which, eventually, came to nothing as they twice fell into administration.
“I actually feel a bit bitter along with other fans who raised all that money which then just went into a hole or wherever,” said the 36-year-old.
“I could always see that when it lurched from crisis to crisis they would probably have to reach rock bottom.
“But now you can see they are getting the right structures and the right people in to hopefully lead them back up.”
Peacock’s former Bradford team-mate and ex-Leeds assistant coach James Lowes was put in charge last month and, though he could not prevent the inevitable demotion, he has started the planning process for 2015.
The loss of experienced props Garreth Carvell and Nick Scruton earlier this year has been at the heart of Bradford’s on-field problems.
“That was huge. A lot of our quality front-rows are playing in the NRL nowadays so the ones that are left are at a premium,” added Peacock. “They’ve found it difficult to make metres over the year and to make decent ground and that’s down to that.
“But what I also find disappointing is the number of players from Bradford who are now, through no fault of their own, playing elsewhere having had to be sold.
“There’s Elliott Whitehead and John Bateman to name a couple – some real quality – and it’s only down to mis-management that they have had to go. Probably every team in Super League has benefited from Bradford’s demise.”
There will be plenty of reminiscing from fans tomorrow as the old rivalry is renewed before a hiatus of at least 12 months.
Of his own memories, Peacock said: “With Bradford, winning the 2005 Grand Final against Leeds in my last game for them has to be the best.
“But for Leeds, if I’m honest, nothing really grabs me as there hasn’t been that same threat from Bulls. It’s nowhere near the biggest derby now and hasn’t been for some time – for that you need both teams to be challenging at the top. That’s not been the case.”
That is perhaps best illustrated by the fact Leeds coach Brian McDermott has rested England internationals Ryan Hall and Kallum Watkins for tomorrow even though another back – Exiles centre Joel Moon – is injured.
England captain Sinfield (banned), Carl Ablett (elbow) and Peacock himself, due to a back injury, are also out, but Ryan Bailey, Ian Kirke, Ben Jones-Bishop, Brett Delaney and Mitch Achurch return with youngster Ash Handley set to debut.
But Peacock said: “I’m sure Bulls will play very well and it makes it interesting after they beat Wigan on Sunday.
“I think they will win a few more games now and we know it’s going to be a tough fixture.”