WELCOME to the Kingstone Press Championship, Bradford Bulls.
The relegated Super League giants got a first taste of their new surroundings yesterday and came unstuck immediately despite playing their part in an epic, if utterly surreal, encounter.
Six yellow cards, including Bradford scrum-half Harry Siejka twice getting sin-binned, a massive brawl and the thunderous arrival of Kiwi powerhouse Fuifui Moimoi for Leigh in front of 7,449 vociferous supporters, their biggest ever crowd at the stadium, is only a hint of what unfolded.
That Bradford contrived to let a 20-6 interval lead slip against the reigning champions, a side intent on earning promotion back into the elite themselves, will continue to annoy head coach James Lowes for some time.
That is especially so as – after shipping 16 straight points to go behind – they then led 24-22 again when the excellent Adam O’Brien scurried in for his second try in the 70th minute.
However, he will perhaps remain more perturbed about the standard of officiating after witnessing his side succumb amid a raft of niggly tactics from their opponents plus some bizarre decisions from the referee Joe Cobb.
Given the high profile of this game as the Championship season got underway, it did seem surprising that a Super League official was not assigned especially as there was only one other top-flight fixture yesterday.
“We threw that game away – let’s be right,” admitted Lowes, having seen his side initially take control with first-half tries from hooker O’Brien, captain Chev Walker plus debutants Jake Mullaney and Etu Uaisele.
“It was down to us and some of the stuff we did in that second half. But I thought we were massively undone by the referees and the officials.
“I thought it was a disgrace in the second half but he just lost control right from the start.
“He wasn’t the correct referee for the job – we needed a strong referee in there.
“Some of the stuff we’ve worked on, when it came to the crunch, we didn’t do it and I was disappointed about that.
“But if you have to have a go at the referee going down the tunnel at half-time, to make him referee the game differently, then I might have to start doing that.”
Leigh, who lost just one game in the league last term and have gone full-time for their promotion tilt, looked shocked by the pace and ferocity of Bradford’s start as the visitors surged into a 12-0 lead in as many minutes with O’Brien and Walker scores.
Yet when they finally got some ball, they quickly responded via Ryan Brierley’s try which Martin Ridyard improved, and a fascinating tussle was truly underway.
Ugly scenes emerged in the 22th minute when Danny Williams, the Bradford winger, unleashed a flurry of punches on Gregg McNally – the man who recovered to score Leigh’s winning try – after dropping a gilt-edged pass.
Both players were yellow-carded – Williams was lucky not to get red – and Leigh were down to 11 men with Jamie Acton already in the sin-bin.
It was soon levelled up when Siejka was sin-binned for a late hit on Sam Barlow but Bradford steadied themselves better to strike twice in quick succession before the break, Leigh’s Kurt Haggerty having also been yellow-carded for tackling Uaisele in the air. When Adrian Purtell charged over off Lee Gaskell’s pass in the 50th minute, it looked like Lowes’s side had done enough.
However, Cobb ruled the Australian centre had been held up and, instead of potentially leading 26-6, they conceded a try to Tom Kay just moments later to offer the hosts hope.
When pacy full-back McNally found some space to cross for his first soon after, they were buoyant and trailing just 20-16.
All of which made Siejka’s decision to then try and prevent Leigh taking a quick 20m restart all the more farcical. While he was off for his second stint, Leigh took the lead for the first time.
Again it was avoidable, Chris Ulugia conceding a high tackle when Kay was trapped behind his own line, gifting Leigh an easy escape, from which Tom Armstrong glided over for Ridyard to make it 22-20 in the 65th minute.
When Sean Penkywicz spilled coming out of his own half, O’Brien picked up the loose ball to put Bradford back in front.
However, McNally came to the fore once more and, after Ridyard converted and added a penalty, his side rubbed salt into the wound when Penkywicz crossed in injury-time despite a blatant knock-on in the build-up.
Lowes admitted: “We probably left a bit in the dressing room at half-time. We maybe sat back a little bit thinking ‘we’ve got this game done’ and you can’t do that at any level.”
To cap a strange afternoon, complaints were made to the match commissioner after members of the Bradford staff were allegedly verbally abused by Leigh’s head of rugby Derek Beaumont, who was seen taunting some of the Bulls’ squad members in the main stand.
Leigh Centurions: McNally; Higson, Worthington, Armstrong, Kay; Ridyard, Brierley; Acton, Penkywicz, Wilkes, Haggerty, Goulden, Barlow. Substitutes: Beswick, Hopkins, Moimoi, Emmitt.
Bradford Bulls: Mullaney; Uaisele, Purtell, Walker, Williams; Gaskell, Siejka; Clough, O’Brien, Sidlow, Olbison, Pitts, Addy. Substitutes: Mellor, Tahraoui, Ulugia, Walshaw.
Referee: J Cobb (Newton-le-Willows).