FOUR-TRY Luke Gale helped save Bradford Bulls’ blushes as their Super League existence almost ended in pitiful circumstances this afternoon.
The four-times champions looked like bowing out with an embarrassing defeat at bottom-placed London Broncos who have won just once in the last 12 months yet led 30-16 early in the second half and again 36-34 with just 10 minutes to go.
However, captain Gale, the former London scrum-half who now heads to Castleford Tigers, came to their rescue as he crucially supported Jay Pitts for his defining fourth score in the 77th minute.
Widnes Vikings-bound Manase Manuokafoa then finally settled nerves with the last play of a frantic match.
With both sides long since consigned to the drop, this final day fixture was always going to be an exercise mainly in saving some pride and finishing on a relative high.
Bradford, who gave debuts to 19-year-olds Emmerson Whittle and Brad Adams, looked like doing just that as they eased into a 16-0 lead inside just 12 minutes.
Yet James Lowes’ side then inexplicably fell apart as London, with Australian scrum-half Josh Drinkwater and inspirational captain Matt Cook to the fore, revitalised a team that had lost 26 of its 27 games this term.
They recovered brilliantly to look on course for a memorable success ahead of their own venture in the Championship.
Bradford thought they had saved themselves with another purple patch of three tries in 10 minutes, including Gale completing his hat-trick, taking them 34-30 ahead.
But there was more drama as Drinkwater dummied his way over and held his nerve to successfully kick a difficult conversion to edge his side ahead once more in the 70th minute.
Gale came back though to sort them out when they needed it most.
Having spent three seminal years in the capital, he initially ripped them open with two tries in the opening four minutes.
First he dummied and slice through and then, after Brett Kearney’s fine pass unleashed Adam Henry down the right flank, Gale was on hand for a quickfire double.
Jamie Foster improved both and when centre Joe Arundel eased over all too easily out wide direct from a scrum the visitors were 16-0 up inside just 12 minutes.
But then Bradford simply switched off and allowed their opponents a sniff of an opportunity to stir.
Foster threw away possession on the wing and Scott Moore’s dummy-half pass saw Matt Cook charge through from 20m on a perfect angle in the 18th minute.
Both players will, like Gale, feature for Castleford next season and Tigers fans can be happy with what they are gaining.
Loose forward Cook, the London captain who spent the early part of his career at Odsal winning the World Club Challenge in 2006, was colossal up front.
It was his excellent squeezed pass out of the tackle that saw Josh Drinkwater add the hosts’ third try after Joe Keyes had also crossed when Ben Farrar had intercepted Gale’s ambitious long pass from 40m.
Drinkwater improved all of them to leave London surreally 18-16 in front after 26 minutes.
Another strong Cook run, supported by Hull KR-bound Kieran Dixon, led to their fourth try although the defence was shocking as Erjon Dollapi carried three tacklers over with him for Drinkwater to maintain his 100 per cent record.
Oscar Thomas then went in for a brilliant chip and chase effort just before the hooter following Henry’s fumble on the first tackle only for referee Joe Cobb to bring Bradford much-needed relief, ruling it out deeming there had been a knock-on from both sides.
They started the second period in better shape but could not muster any points and, instead, Drinkwater ushered prop Nick Slyney over between the posts in the 52 minute to extend London’s advantage further.
However, Brett Kearney finally restored some order for Lowes’ side, the departing Australian full-back diving to win the race to Foster’s kick infield after the winger had advanced down the left.
Foster improved and did so again when, after Manuokafoa was floored by a high tackle that went on report, Gale jinxed to send Pitts crashing over.
Then came Gale’s treble after Kearney sent Tom Olbison cruising into space, Foster adding the extras, before Drinkwater made Bradford nervous.
LONDON BRONCOS: Walker; Dixon, Farrar, Thomas, Atkins; Keyes, Drinkwater; Slyney, Moore, Wallace, McMeeken, Vea, Cook. Subs: Everett, Krasniqi, Wicks, Dollapi
BRADFORD BULLS: Kearney; Foster, Arundel, Walker, Henry; Addy, Gale; Manuokafoa, O’Brien, Baldwinson, Olbison, Pitts, Donaldson. Subs: Mellor, Whittle, Conroy, Adams.