WHEN relegation was re-introduced to Super League for this campaign, few could have imagined the modern-day “Million Pound” match would occur as early as the first day of June.
When Wakefield Trinity Wildcats defeated Castleford Tigers in a winner-takes-all survival battle at a heaving Belle Vue on the final day of the 2006 season, it was the very embodiment of all the drama, tension and suspense a stark threat of demotion can bring.
It made for brilliant television and the ferocious battle to avoid that fate ensured there were few dead rubbers heading into the final weeks of the season.
Yet, strangely, such is the current wretched state of stricken Bradford Bulls they are already facing a contest of similar magnitude on Sunday.
If Francis Cummins’s side lose against – ironically enough –Wakefield at Odsal they will not be consigned to the Championship with immediate effect as such, but it will undoubtedly be their death knell.
Second-bottom Bradford would be 10 points adrift of Trinity – who are currently just above them in the table – and at least nine behind Salford Red Devils, who head to St Helens on Friday.
There will be a dozen games still to go after this weekend’s fixtures, but it is hard to imagine Bradford – who have leaked, on average, 50 points in each of their last three games – staging a remarkable recovery from there.
The time to have initiated that was last Saturday when they ventured over to Perpignan, but the manner of their meek capitulation against Catalan Dragons was a worrying sign some players, despite their futures being on the line, are already lacking the stomach for the fight.
After watching the “embarrassing” 46-4 no-show, it was the first time Cummins truly attacked his squad’s professionalism. He must hope there is now an instant and positive reaction.
He deserves better and so do the club’s fans who have endured much misery in recent seasons given the financial mis-management of the former World Club champions.
Granted, there is potential salvation in the form of their appeal against the six-point deduction meted out for entering administration earlier this year.
That will be heard in a week and, if they have lost to Wakefield by then, they need to reclaim all six to have any real chance of survival.
However, securing that amount is highly unlikely and Bradford will, in truth, probably be expecting two, which again reiterates the importance of this weekend’s looming fixture.
Marc Green may have bought a famous Super League name out of administration in March but he could soon be in charge of a Championship outfit.
Many people will ask whether the elite competition can afford to be without Bradford who, with Bullmania, trailed a blaze at the start of the summer era in the mid-Nineties and went on to establish themselves as a genuine force winning four titles.
But, the truth of the matter is the exact opposite; the West Yorkshire club needs Super League far more than it needs them.
For all their previous gravitas, they have not appeared in the play-offs for six years let alone reached a Grand Final, their last Old Trafford success being in 2005.
Crowds have dwindled and, mired by money problems, they have failed to sign top-class players, while many of their best homegrown talent has departed. Understandably, they no longer hold great pulling power.
Admittedly, Green has vowed to turn their fortunes around and promised to be in it for the long haul even if relegation does occur.
And the way the competition is formulated in 2015 means an immediate promotion back to Super League is weighted in favour of the relegated sides, winless London Broncos being the other team presently marooned.
But, that said, it will not be easy given the ambition of the likes of Leigh, Featherstone and Halifax.
Of course, Bradford can do themselves a favour and avoid such carnage by producing some form on the field and delivering the wins that could yet save them.
It is imperative they start this weekend as nothing other than a win would be catastrophic. Their next Super League game is then a trip to free-falling Salford, who have not won in their last six fixtures, so there is scope for a renaissance to take root.
There is enough quality in parts of Bradford’s squad to be performing far better and it will be interesting to see whether Green stays faithful to Cummins – a talented young coach who has had to work in such difficult circumstances – or look elsewhere to gain some impetus.
Cummins should be allowed to finish the job but, given Wakefield have five successive home games after Sunday, his players must now stand up and be counted, apply the pressure on their rivals and take this fight right to the very last.