AS joyful as it was seeing England stars John Bateman, Elliott Whitehead, Tom Burgess and George Burgess all mingling with fans at Odsal yesterday it is a painful reminder of what could have been for Bradford Bulls.
They all represented the club in the not too distant past only to understandably move on elsewhere as the falling former World Club champions lurched from one financial crisis to another.
It would have been some pack if they could have all remained – and let’s not forget Sam Burgess, too – but that is a story which unfortunately will never be told.
However, the star-studded alumni (Whitehead and Bateman will be Canberra Raiders team-mates together next season but both hail from Bradford) re-united here to watch Bulls hopefully take a step closer back to their former glories.
The League 1 play-off final is a far cry from Old Trafford but it was just as important a fixture for them yesterday as they eventually overcome a stubborn Workington Town side to earn promotion back to the Championship 12 months after relegation.
Australian winger Jy Hitchcox – who played in a Grand Final with Castleford Tigers last term – showed his class with a crucial hat-trick of tries but it was far from one-way traffic.
They were only leading 12-8 heading into the final quarter, but poor goalkicking – just one success from seven attempts by the end – meant it allowed Workington to get close when Elliott Miller latched onto Carl Forber’s grubber in the 52nd minute.
However, Hitchcox – who joined on loan from Castleford in July – scored his second in the 63rd minute to ease tension and, after Workington’s ex-Kiwi prop Fuifui Moimoi was red-carded for an awful high tackle, he gleefully raced in for his third.
Coach John Kear said: “It feels great. I’m delighted for the boys. The team has evolved in the two play-off games.
“We scored six tries this week and nine against Oldham in the semi, and that’s when the chips are down. It’s sudden death, trap-door rugby and they’ve really fronted up. It’s been a tough season when you’re there to be shot at and the ones everybody wants to beat.
It’s sudden death, trap-door rugby and they’ve really fronted up. It’s been a tough season when you’re there to be shot at and the ones everybody wants to beat.Bradford Bulls coach, John Kear
“But I think that’s hardened them up for these two games. They’re going to be even better next year. We’ve got stability and we’re going to add quality.”
On whether that will include 29-year-old Hitchcox, Kear admitted: “It’s not a bad CV he’s just handed in is it?
“I might get a drink tonight, I might get Monday off but I think I’ll be in Tuesday trying to secure things like that ...I don’t like singling players out but it wasn’t just the tries he scored. When he was in yardage he caused all sorts of trouble.”
Workington had been the only team Bradford had failed to beat during the League 1 season, the second defeat a 24-18 loss at Odsal in August essentially handing the title and sole automatic promotion place to rivals York City Knights. However, led brilliantly up front by forwards Ross Peltier, Steve Crossley and Elliot Minchella, they managed to recover their poise to get home.
First-half tries came from the effervescent George Flanagan and a fine solo score from Joe Keyes as they overcame Matty Garside’s yellow card for preventing a quick Workington 20m tap while Chisholm rounded it all off.
Workington were hit by first-half injuries to experienced key players Oliver Wilkes and Sean Penkywicz but they get another chance to earn promotion.
After a coin toss decided the venue, they will head to Swinton Lions, who finished bottom in the Championship Shield, for the last remaining Championship place.
However, with that added fixture only implemented by the powers-that-be less than a month ago, Leon Pryce, the former Bulls star now coach of Workington, has major worries. He said: “I’ve got four players who are on holiday. They booked them as the season was supposed to end today. I can’t say ‘no’ to them now. To put this fixture in this late is a farce.”
Bradford Bulls: McNally; Hitchcox, Gibson, Oakes, Ryan; Keyes, Chisholm; Kirk, Lilley, Crossley, Garside, Minchella, Wood. Substitutes: Peltier, Flanagan, Storton, Green.
Workington Town: Mellor; Hambley, Miller, Morris, Rooke; Doran, Forber; Wilkes, Penkywicz, Dickinson, Olstrom, Moore, Scholey. Substitutes: Newton, Curwen, Dawson, Moimoi.
Referee: M Griffiths (RFL).