Bradford Bulls 33 Catalan Dragons 20
Few Bradford victories of recent times have ever been more rapturously received.
At 16-0 down after just 13 minutes, Francis Cummins and his players were staring at a dismal defeat.
A sense of déjà vu gripped the home crowd after recent losses.
It was a truly shocking start and the game looked to be heading only one way.
But then the Bulls woke up and remembered they could actually perform.
They took the match by the scruff of the neck and, slowly but surely, reduced Catalan Dragons to rubble.
Energy, self-belief and desire began to course through the veins of Cummins’ players.
They breathed fire in what turned out to be a classic Challenge Cup tie.
Skipper Matt Diskin led by example, combining to excellent effect with Luke Gale while the tactical switch of deploying Brett Kearney at stand-off and Lee Gaskell at full back worked a treat.
Bradford – who had lost their last seven Super League matches, against a Catalan side who had won their last four in all competitions – went in at the break with an 18-16 lead after tries from Gaskell and a brace from Jamie Foster.
Laurent Frayssinous’ men were not helped by the loss to injury of Elliott Whitehead midway through the first half.
The former Bulls man was in a Bradford hospital last night with a suspected broken right ankle.
But take nothing away from the Bulls.
Their character was called into question by managing director Steve Ferres’ damning statement issued in the wake of the Easter Monday massacre at Wigan.
Yesterday was the perfect response, although they do nothing the easy way and their awful starts remain a cause for huge concern.
Cummins could not hide his delight afterwards as he looks forward to this evening’s quarter-final draw.
The Bulls were bolstered by the return after injury of Diskin, Foster, Luke George and Adam Sidlow.
George started in the centres and enjoyed a fine game, while new signing Jay Pitts made his Bulls debut in the second row and played the full 80 minutes.
Jamal Fakir started in the front row against the club he left in acrimonious fashion only last month.
Fakir was effectively hung out to dry following Catalans’ surrender at Wakefield in March, leading to his subsequent switch to Bradford.
Thus he needed no added motivation to perform yesterday against a Dragons side containing three ex-Bulls players in Whitehead, Leon Pryce and Olivier Elima.
The Dragons, bolstered by a vocal contingent from the south of France, led inside the second minute.
Fakir made a dreadful handling error, dropping the ball in the Bulls’ first set of the match on the third tackle.
Catalan quickly made him pay as Pryce found Vincent Duport and his neat pass sent Daryl Millard squeezing over in the left corner.
William Barthau, deputising for the injured Thomas Bosc at scrum half, could not convert from a difficult angle.
Catalan continued to probe and, when referee James Child penalised George for holding down, they added a second try in the tenth minute.
Some neat passing saw hooker Eloi Pelissier find Barthau and his pass sent Ben Pomeroy over in the right corner.
It was all too easy and Barthau’s first conversion made it 10-0.
From the restart, the Bulls conceded a penalty after Foster kicked out on the full, giving Catalan an immediate chance to build more pressure on the hosts’ line.
They duly made it pay from the next set as Barthau’s stabbed kick was horribly missed by George under the posts and Elima had the simplest of tasks to ground the ball.
Barthau’s equally straightforward conversion made it 16-0 and left the Bulls facing a mountainous task.
Cummins made a number of changes, bringing on Sidlow and Tom Olbison for Fakir and Manase Manuokafoa, who was helped off in the closing stages with a hamstring injury.
Yet Bradford continued to struggle badly for any kind of field position and when Child finally awarded the Bulls a penalty in the 25th minute, it drew sarcastic cheers from the home supporters.
It gave Cummins’ side the opportunity to force the Dragons back towards their own line but Gale’s last-tackle kick came to nothing.
Yet moments later the Bulls were back in the game when, after a fine surging run from George inside the right channel, Gale stabbed a teasing short grubber kick behind the Dragons’ defence.
Gaskell arrived like a steam train to pounce on the ball and touch down in style for a try that Foster converted.
That 28th-minute score breathed new life into the Bulls and, after Whitehead went off injured, Pomeroy almost grabbed his second, only to be held up over the line by some obstinate defending.
Fakir came back on to replace Chev Walker in the 32nd minute and some fine dummy running from Gale found Adrian Purtell in space in the left corner.
His progress was halted but from the next tackle, Foster was on hand to ground the loose ball after Catalan failed to deal with Gaskell’s kick.
With Diskin an increasing influence on proceedings at the ruck, the Bulls began to batter the Dragons’ line.
Three minutes before the break, Bradford’s first-half recovery was complete when Kearney found Gaskell and his long pass sent the unmarked Foster scampering over in the left corner. Foster expertly added the conversion to make it 18-16 at the break to cap a remarkable turnaround.
The award of five penalties on the bounce helped their cause and the Bulls would not have wanted the first half to end.
Moments after the restart, the excellent Olbison embarked on a lung-bursting run from inside his own half.
He was tackled and held down, earning the Bulls a penalty which led to Gale showing some delightful footwork to weave past Pelissier to cross the line from close range.
Foster’s fourth conversion made it 24-16 and Danny Addy was held up just short of the line soon after as the Bulls went in search of further tries. But Catalan were not finished and only some fine defending from the Bulls kept them at bay as the second half progressed.
In the 54th minute, Diskin was given his first breather of the game, replaced by Adam O’Brien, who put in an excellent shift.
The young hooker superbly created the space to usher Purtell clear in the 58th minute and his speed and quick thinking began to cause Catalan all manner of problems at the ruck.
But the Dragons fashioned a reply in the 62nd minute when winger Michael Oldfield touched down in the right corner.
The Bulls, roared on by the home crowd, held on with relative ease and a late penalty from Foster, coupled with a drop goal from Gale, put the outcome beyond doubt.
The Bulls had progressed into the quarter-finals of rugby league’s famous old competition.