EVEN THE most ardent Bradford Bulls fan could not have envisaged this happening.
Already without star stand-off Lee Gaskell due to injury and then hearing half-back partner Harry Siejka had got crocked in their final training session, it was a far from enviable position to be taking on Super League Salford Red Devils.
However, with a remarkable performance, Braford utterly destroyed their opponents yesterday to become the first Championship club – at the eighth attempt – to defeat top-flight opposition in the Qualifiers.
The victory, inspired by man-of-the-match Danny Addy and two-try Jake Mullaney, has blown open the race for promotion and given the West Yorkshire club a real lift in their bid to earn an immediate return to the elite.
Just eight days after an embarrassing defeat at Wakefield Trinity, Bradford were unrecognisable as they meticulously set about unpicking opponents who had annihilated Leigh Centurions 46-18 in their last match.
In the first half yesterday James Lowes’s side did not make a single handling error – a rarity at any level – and it was from the one mistake they made, Danny Addy kicking direct into touch, that Salford scored their only try of the half.
That was via Rangi Chase as the former England stand-off danced his way through from close range but it did not occur until the 35th minute and, from thereon in, Bradford did a superb job in keeping him largely quiet.
Instead, it was the hosts who were making all the noise with a succession of quality tries including one from Addy in the second half that summed up their enterprise.
Salford had, for once, got Bradford pinned down on their own line but there was no panic and, instead, hooker Adam O’Brien tried to escape by throwing a wide pass from dummy-half that suddenly saw debutant Dane Nielsen send Tom Olbison scorching away for Addy to support through the middle.
Addy was superb dictating play in Gaskell’s absence and showed his versatility once more while Mullaney loved taking on his former club.
The Australian full-back was discarded by Salford after just a few months last year to make way for Kiwi star Kevin Locke.
But he proved too good for them yesterday, filling in at scrum-half and scoring two stylish tries on his return from injury before, unfortunately, going off early in the second period with a troubled calf.
Lowes said: “He’s a little rat up a drainpipe is Jake; he’s got some play in him.
“Unfortunately he’s been dogged by injuries this year and that’s something we’ll look at to fix in the coming months and pre-season.
“But even at 80 per cent he’s a threat. He showed that today and we played really well.”
Bradford handed a debut to former Queensland State of Origin centre Nielsen who looked solid considering he had not played a first-team game since March before being sacked by St George-Illawarra.
If his colleague’s final play options had been better – there was a few poor kicks and running on the last – they could have been much further ahead than 17-4 at the interval.
Dale Ferguson, a strong presence down the left, scored after just four minutes, Addy slotting the first of his six goals.
Danny Williams – one of three former Salford players in the Bradford ranks – added their second try in the 17th minute following some excellent play by James Clare, who enjoyed a brilliant afternoon from full-back in stark contrast to last week’s jittery performance at Wakefield.
Omari Caro produced a fine kick-return to give them position for their third try, Mullaney scampering over from 30m after finding yet more space.
Addy could not improve but Bradford were 16-0 ahead nonetheless.
Chase did then dummy over for that try but Mullaney slotted a drop goal with just seconds of the half thinking the game may be tight in the second half.
He added his second try three minutes into the second period by bamboozling the Salford defence once more and, after the visitors wasted two good chances, Addy scored his brilliant try.
Clare exposed more weak defence by squeezing over from dummy-half before Adrian Purtell scored on the hour from Addy’s fine inside pass.
Iain Thornley pulled a try back for Salford, Michael Dobson converting, but the game was over.
However, Clare – the recent signing from Castleford Tigers – showed how much it still meant to him with an astonishing try-saving tackle on Salford’s Niall Evalds.
If Bradford can repeat this sort of performance, he and the rest of this team could be back in Super League for 2016.
Bradford Bulls: Clare; Caro, Nielsen, Purtell, Williams; Addy, Mullaney; Clough, O’Brien, Sidlow, Ferguson, Olbison, Pitts. Substitutes: Blythe, Mellor, Lauaki, Crossley.
Salford Red Devils: Evalds; Jones-Bishop, Sa’u, Thornley, Johnson; Chase, Dobson; Taylor, Tomkins, Tasi, G Griffin, Hauraki, Morley. Substitutes: Lee, Forster, Paterson, Krasniqi.
Referee: R Hicks (Oldham).