Leeds Rhinos 14 Bradford Bulls 20
THE Bulls may be heading for the Championship but the Jimmy Lowes-inspired renaissance is underway.
Officially. Emphatically. Undeniably.
Beating Wigan last week was one thing but toppling Leeds in the last Super League derby between these rivals, at least for the time being?
It was the perfect way to mark the end of an era and certainly no more than the Bulls deserved.
It was an error-strewn encounter and the Rhinos were severely understrength but Lowes’ men showed remarkable spirit to come from behind and snatch victory late on.
That it was Lee Gaskell who should score the match-winning try was apt.
For he is a player Lowes will build his team around for next season’s assault on the Championship.
Gaskell collected a neat pass from Luke Gale, who was nurtured in the academy at Leeds and weighed in with a try and four goals last night, before scampering over the line in the 74th minute.
The massed ranks of Bulls supporters behind the posts celebrated wildly and Lowes and his men did likewise at the final hooter.
A quick glance at the team-sheet certainly offered plenty of encouragement for Lowes and his players beforehand.
The Rhinos were missing six key players in Joel Moon, Carl Ablett, Jamie Peacock, Kevin Sinfield, Kallum Watkins and Ryan Hall.
The latter two were rested ahead of Leeds’ Challenge Cup semi-final against Warrington next Saturday, with Brian McDermott making his priorities clear.
Lowes had spoken in the build-up about his first return to Leeds as a Bradford player when, in August 1996, he helped the Bulls to a thumping 56-18 victory and celebrated his try with a double fist-clenched salute in front of the South Stand.
Leeds were a mess back then – a failing club on and off the field.
At the end of the first season of summer rugby in 1996, debts had spiralled to over £5million and they finished two places above relegated Workington Town.
Bradford, of course, went on to enjoy a golden era, with Lowes at the heart of it before Leeds gradually established themselves as the most successful side in Super League.
Now the Bulls find themselves outside the top flight for the first time in over 40 years and looking to rebuild from the ground up; a classic example of success in sport being cyclical.
Although bound for the Championship, last week’s victory over Wigan confirmed that the Bulls are certainly heading in the right direction under Lowes.
Their first-half performance was proof enough, as they went in at the break all square at 4-4 after a hard-fought opening 40 minutes.
The defensive improvements that Lowes has overseen during his embryonic reign were clear for all to see.
They began strongly and led inside the fifth minute when Gale embarked on a dangerous run and drove at the heart of the Rhinos’ defence.
His progress was halted but the ball was worked back to the England Knights playmaker and he flighted a high kick to the right corner.
Danny Williams, another player to come through the ranks at Headingley, challenged with Tom Briscoe for the ball and it fell fortuitously into his path and he touched down.
Gale could not convert but the try visibly poured confidence into Lowes’ players.
After all, if they could put the champions to the sword five days earlier, why not Leeds too?
Yet the hosts steadied themselves and began to ask some questions of the Bulls’ defence, with Jay Pitts denying Mitch Achurch with one of several important tackles by the former Rhinos man.
Bradford were forced to defend doggedly again when Jamal Fakir lost the ball 20 metres from his own line but, moments later, more impish footwork from the outstanding Gale almost sent James Donaldson through a gap.
But Leeds replied in the 15th minute when some neat handling across the face of the Bulls defence culminated in Zak Hardaker finding Achurch.
The second-rower showed some fine footwork to sidestep through the Bradford defence and score from close range inside the right channel.
Hardaker failed to convert and fit-again Dale Ferguson soon came on to replace Tom Olbison for his first appearance in two months.
Handling errors continued to undermined both sides, especially Leeds, who could not make their numerical advantage pay after Adam Sidlow was sent to the sinbin in the 22nd minute.
The prop, who this week agreed a new one-year deal, was deemed guilty of interference after Josh Walters made an exhilarating long-range break which saw Elliot Kear halt his progress.
The Bulls were then forced to drop out after a teasing kick from Rob Burrow and moments later Rhinos winger Ben Jones-Bishop was helped off the field with a serious-looking knee injury after he and Matty Blythe contested Burrow’s high kick.
Sidlow came back on in the 33rd minute but the scores remained 4-4 heading into the break.
Three minutes after the break, Sidlow broke the Leeds’ line with a fine run which saw him find Kear in support.
The Wales international was stopped ten metres short but, in the 49th minute, Bradford scored through Gale.
The Castleford-bound scrum-half showed notable inventiveness to chip forward before collecting, with the ball falling kindly to him to ground with ease in front of the Bulls supporters.
Gale added the extras but Leeds were soon level when a kick from McGuire fell kindly into the path of Brett Delaney, who had a simple task to touch down.
Hardaker’s goal tied the scores at 10-10 but Leeds continued to lack cohesion and the Bulls edged back in front in the 64th minute as Gale scored a penalty to make it 12-10 after Leeds were guilty of holding down.
Leeds forged back in front when Luke Briscoe scored in the right corner but Bradford were not finished.
They snatched the win in the 74th minute as Gaskell, who has committed himself to the club for next season’s Championship campaign, showed impressive footwork to collect a pass from Gale and gallop clear in front of the jubilant Bulls supporters.
Gale converted and then booted a last-minute penalty to seal a famous win.