ALMOST 15 months after suffering the ignominy of relegation, Bradford Bulls are just 80 minutes away from redemption today.
Head coach James Lowes has had plenty of time to prepare for this moment – he would have known long before July 21 last year, too, that the famous club was already destined for the drop – but that certainly doesn’t alleviate any of the pressure.
Essentially, after their year in the Championship, the four-times Super League champions know they must now defeat Wakefield Trinity Wildcats at Belle Vue this afternoon in the Million Pound Game to secure their return.
Simple enough when put in print but so, so different in reality.
It has not been a steady journey to this point, Bradford slipping up badly at times in their league campaign and again in the Qualifiers, not least a week ago when suffering a humiliating 52-18 home defeat to part-timers Halifax.
But Lowes, a legend at the club as a dogmatic and gifted hooker during their halcyon days near the start of Super League, understands today’s game is all that now truly matters.
“This is all down to what the players have done this season,” he said.
“I said right at the start it would be a rollercoaster and the players have come in for some unfair criticism throughout that year when we have underperformed or performances haven’t been brilliant.
“But we’ve always had faith we would be able to challenge in these Eights (Qualifiers) and these guys have put themselves in a great position to challenge for a place in Super League.
“I’d be thrilled for them if they did that. There is so much on it but whoever handles the occasion best will prosper.”
Bradford fans are just preying their side do not perform like they did against Wakefield at the same venue seven weeks ago.
That afternoon, on the opening day of the Qualifiers when hopes were still high in the Bulls camp they would secure a top-three spot and automatic promotion, Lowes could only watch on helpless as his side were embarrassed 48-18 by rampant Trinity.
The gulf between Super League – even its bottom team who had won just three times all year – and the Championship looked huge.
Granted, Bradford did later defeat Salford Red Devils in the Qualifiers but that was one of only two victories from second-tier teams over top-flight opponents, Sheffield Eagles being the other after last Sunday’s shock win against Wakefield, ironically, which offers today’s visitors further encouragement.
Lowes explained: “After the Salford win, we failed to capitalise on it and that was the result of the guys not playing high-level competition week in and week out and being able to sustain that level.
“We did it for 40 minutes against Widnes and Hull KR but we were always going to fall off because we have not played at that level this season.
“That’s probably one of the big advantages Wakefield have got because they have been playing at that higher level, certainly in the lead up to the Middle Eights.
“But it’s a field with some rugby posts on but we’ll have 2,500 Bradford fans here getting behind us.
“It’s a one-off game and the only (home) advantage is that their dressing room is bigger than ours, so I’m not particularly fussed.”
Lowes concedes one of his biggest tasks in recent days has been the mental preparation of his squad.
“We talked a lot about that (Wakefield) game and why it panned out the way it did,” he said, Bulls blown away 30-0 in the opening half-hour.
“But we’ve also got a lot of players lacking in big-game experience and some young blokes who have had tough starts to their careers at Bradford with regards to what has happened in the last couple of years.
“Relegation hurt a lot and it has taken a lot of getting over.
“It’s more down to me and the more experienced blokes to nurture the younger players through this week.”
But when it comes to his own direct opponent, the 45-year-old Lowes is the relative rookie himself, too, given he goes up against the veteran Australian Brian Smith. It was Smith, of course, who actually signed a young Lowes from Leeds in 1996.
He recently revealed that Lowes was his best-ever signing, to which the Bulls coach admitted: “I’m just humbled by the words. Brian opened up my eyes as to how you play rugby when I came from Leeds to Bradford.
“I’ve got the utmost respect for Brian as a coach and as a bloke.
“I went through a tough period in that 1995 season at Leeds and Brian offered me a lifeline.
“I met him a couple of times and had some good chats with him.
“I actually went round to his house and had some tea with him as I signed the contract.
“He just opened my eyes to viewing the game differently and then, working with him again with the England coaching staff in 2010, he’s got a composure and a calmness about him.”
It will be fascinating to see if either coach retains those characteristics in the pressurised 80 minute ahead.