A SECOND-half capitulation of embarrassing proportions could have caused significant damage to Bradford Bulls’ promotion hopes.
They trailed just 14-12 against Widnes Vikings at half-time yesterday and, having already defeated Salford Red Devils, must have felt confident of potentially adding a second successive victory over Super League opponents.
However, they fell away badly in the second period when the rampant visitors, with former Bradford winger Patrick Ah Van and scrum-half Joe Mellor both completing hat-tricks, scored 42 unanswered points.
With three games to go in the Qualifiers, the defeat leaves them fifth behind fourth-placed Wakefield Trinity only due to an inferior points difference.
The top three are promoted and, so, the Million Pound Game – which sees fourth play fifth for the final promotion spot – is what Bradford have their eyes on.
However, they head to Hull KR on Saturday, who have won all four so far, and then visit Leigh Centurions who are just two points below them in sixth place.
Leigh finished top of the Championship above Bradford, have a better points difference and face winless Halifax next week.
That Leigh v Bradford fixture, then, is increasingly looking like a critical game that Jimmy Lowes’s side will in all likelihood need to win along with their final fixture at home to bottom-placed Halifax at Odsal.
Asked if he still thinks Bradford are in pole position for the Million Pound Game, Lowes said: “I’m not going to put the cue in the rack.
“We had this after (losing against) Wakefield. We had it after (losing against) Featherstone at home.
“We’ve lost a game. We’re still in a decent position so I’m not going to throw the towel in now,” he said.
Fans were furious with Joe Cobb’s performance, the referee who stood in for Richard Silverwood who was missing due to a groin strain.
He seemed to miss a raft of forward passes from Widnes players, some early in the second period which arguably helped swing the game in the visitors’ favour.
Yet Cobb did pull Adrian Purtell up for two forward passes which were both debatable – and left the Bulls captain furious.
To add increase to Bradford’s ire, Widnes scored from the second to make it 18-12 after 48 minutes – even though Danny Galea’s offload again looked forward as Charly Runciman crossed.
Straight after, Mellor scored his treble with a glorious try as he followed up his own downfield kick and watched it bounce back into his hands before juggling all the way to the line.
Danny Tickle, who had taken over from the wayward Lloyd White as goalkicker, added the first of his six goals and lacklustre Bradford then barely got out of their own half.
They did not make a single handling error in the first half when they defeated Salford and that control was the cornerstone of their success.
However, Jay Pitts’s offload went astray in the first set yesterday and, soon after, Adam O’Brien invited Widnes in again by ushering a marginally forward pass from dummy-half.
Nevertheless, both times the hosts managed to defend their line and demonstrate to Widnes that there would be no early softness in their ranks.
Lowes’s side then enjoyed heavy pressure of their own only to come away from nothing; the visitors were similarly resolute in defence.
Playmaker Danny Addy twice pirouetted a full 360 degrees looking for options and they were left to desperate attempts on the final play.
Admittedly, one of them nearly came off, Dane Nielsen grubbering ahead and only narrowly beaten to the ball before the line by a scrambling Hep Cahill.
Bradford did open the scoring, however, with a fine effort as they finally lacerated Widnes up the middle in the 17th minute, James Clare making the initial inroad and then Pitts, Addy and Mullaney all combining to work the ball wide to the left where an unmarked Purtell crossed.
Addy converted but their opponents struck back immediately starting a purple patch of three tries in just seven minutes.
Full-back Clare could not deal with a high kick sufficiently enough meaning Mellor picked up the pieces.
The try-scorer spilled the restart but Bradford once more failed to capitalise with a slack last play and instead Widnes profited from Kevin Brown’s 40/20 kick.
The former England stand-off took firm control as his long pass saw Ah Van, although, again, there seemed to be a couple of forward passes missed in the build-up. Bradford conceded again in the next set as Chris Clarkson escaped down the middle from deep despite, again, his final pass to Mellor being clearly forward.
White added the first of his two conversions but Lowes’s side got some luck at last when Omari Caro intercepted Brown’s pass and raced 90m seconds before the break, Addy improving.
Widnes took that firm grip early in the second period although Tickle’s 57th minute penalty to make it 26-12 showed the visitors were still wary of Bradford’s threat.
They should not have been so concerned; Bulls wilted badly as Cahill, Ah Van (twice), Rhys Hanbury and Brown all scored.
Bradford Bulls: Clare; Caro, Nielsen, Purtell, Williams; Addy, Mullaney; Clough, O’Brien, Sidlow, Ferguson, Olbison, Pitts. Substitutes: Blythe, Mellor, Lauaki, Crossley.
Widnes Vikings: Hanbury; Flynn, Dean, Runciman, Ah Van; Brown, Mellor; Gerrard, White, Dudson, Tickle, Galea, Cahill. Substitutes: Manuokafoa, Clarkson, Whiteley, Heremaia.
Referee: J Cobb (Manchester).