Bradford Bulls last night secured their second successive win since enduring relegation with a spirited, if hugely scrappy victory, that denied arch-rivals Leeds Rhinos the chance of reclaiming Super League’s top spot.
Having stunned champions Wigan Warriors last Sunday, Bulls did the same against Brian McDermott’s lacklustre side to give head coach Jimmy Lowes a perfect return to the club he helped win successive Grand Finals as assistant in 2011 and 2012.
Bradford eventually opted not to challenge that points deduction for entering administration but maybe now they are rueful.
This is perhaps fanciful – they would still be five adrift of Salford Red Devils with four games to go if they had succeeded – and, instead, they will just savour this occasion.
McDermott had left out six players who helped win at Salford previously, presumably with one eye on their Challenge Cup semi-final against Warrington Wolves next week.
However, this youthful team struggled for any cohesion in an error-ridden display and they were eventually undone by Lee Gaskell’s 78th-minute try.
Impressive captain Luke Gale bounced and twisted out of tackles to offload to the stand-off who showed great composure to ease into space and then round full-back Zak Hardaker to dive over in front of the jubilant visiting fans. It was the least his side deserved.
Leeds – who lost Ben Jones-Bishop to a potentially season-ending first-half leg injury – had scored two tries in the second period to take the lead, both of which would have been chalked off if this game had been televised.
Brett Delaney had mopped up in the 54th minute after Hardaker clearly fumbled forward in a heavy tackle and then, after Gale’s penalty nine minutes later had put the visitors ahead, Luke Briscoe also responded with a dubious effort.
Before kicking to the corner for the young winger’s first professional try, Danny McGuire, playing his 300th Super League game for Leeds, ran behind Kylie Leuluai in what – rightly or wrongly – would have undoubtedly been deemed obstruction by video officials.
But Hardaker missed his second conversion of the night and, so, Gaskell came up trumps, Gale slotting the extras and then adding a penalty on the hooter.
If you had told any of the 24,020 supporters who descended on Odsal to see Bradford play out a classic derby with Leeds in 1999 that, just 15 years later, broadcasters would prefer to televise a team called Catalan Dragons versus Warrington Wolves, they would say you had imbibed far too much vin rouge.
Sky Sports did, though, opt to show the latter last night and they will be thankful they did; in truth, this was painful to watch.
Admittedly, there was some unseasonal rain last night but there were few excuses for the shocking handling on display.
Bradford had taken a fourth-minute lead when Danny Williams, the on-loan Salford winger who started his career at Headingley, benefitted from Tom Briscoe’s hesitancy to score, though Gale, whose break and kick set up the chance, could not convert.
Leeds regained possession as Bradford failed to negotiate the restart but then the sides seemingly took it in turns to hand the ball back over, often on the first tackle and in increasingly more frustrating circumstances.
The hosts held it together enough to respond through Mitch Achurch, who did well to spin out of tacklers in the 16th minute after Rob Burrow’s well-directed kick had forced a drop-out.
But it did not bring any order to the game; untouched Jones-Bishop dropped 15m from his own line direct from a scrum only for Gaskell to squander it in the next set.
From there, Josh Walters picked up and ran 70m. Elliot Kear just tracked him down short but Adam Sidlow lay on for too long and the Bradford prop was yellow carded.
Leeds failed to capitalise, though, Walters and then Ian Kirke – running back a drop-out –spilling, and on and on it went.
Four-all at the break, ex-Leeds Academy player Gale put his side in front in the 49th minute when Tom Briscoe again failed to deal with one of his kicks and the scrum-half converted.
Leeds hit back with those two tries but, with England players Ryan Hall and Kallum Watkins sat in the stands, it would not be enough and they must step up considerably if they are to reach Wembley next Saturday.
Leeds Rhinos: Hardaker, T. Briscoe, Sutcliffe, Walters, Jones-Bishop, McGuire, Burrow, Leuluai, Aiton, Singleton, Jones-Buchanan, Achurch, Delaney. Substitutes: Minchella, R. Ward, Kirke, L. Briscoe.
Bradford: Kear, Blythe, Henry, Arundel, Williams, Gaskell, Gale, Manuokafoa, O’Brien, Fakir, Olbison, Pitts, Donaldson. Replacements: Sidlow, Addy, Mellor, Ferguson.
Referee: Tim Roby (RFL)