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Bradford Bulls left stunned by Vikings fightback
Widnes Vikings 22, Bradford Bulls 22
Ultimately it was a point away from home – and a climb to third in the table – but it felt like a defeat.
A commanding 20-4 interval lead surrendered against a team who played for 50 minutes with 12 men.
Patrick Ah Van, of all people, scoring two tries and then kicking the penalty with four minutes remaining to level the scores.
In the end, the final whistle was greeted with blessed relief by Francis Cummins’ players after Widnes had wiped out their lead and looked by far the more likely victors.
It was chastening stuff at times and will give Cummins much to think about ahead of next Sunday’s home clash with Hull KR.
The Bulls coach will await the prognosis on the injuries suffered to the three aforementioned players as his small squad threatens to be left decimated.
About the only good news to come out of last night’s trip to Widnes was that John Bateman is fit to return after scoring a hat-trick in the Academy side’s thumping 46-16 win against their Vikings counterparts.
Bateman will be needed next weekend as the Bulls seek to put this nightmarish second half behind them.
Injuries did not help them, of course, but they struggled badly for any real possession and referee Robert Hicks did them no favours either.
The penalty count certainly went against the Bulls in the second period as Hicks perhaps tried to amend for the controversial red card which saw Gareth Hock sent off for swearing at the official.
After dispatching Huddersfield in such remarkable fashion last Sunday, the Bulls had arrived at the Stobart Stadium flooded with confidence.
Despite missing Jamie Foster with a knock sustained against the Giants, Manase Manuokafoa was passed fit after a similar problem and Matt Diskin returned on the bench after shaking off a dead leg.
The absence of Foster meant Cummins was forced to play Walker on the left flank in a throwback to his younger days at Leeds alongside the Bulls coach at Headingley.
That meant Langley made his first start of the season at loose forward and saw Jobe Murphy brought back into the side on the bench.
Widnes included former Bradford player Ah Van in their starting line-up, while Phil Joseph was named among the replacements.
Joseph made just six appearances for the Bulls in 2012 – and all of those off the bench – after suffering cruel luck with injuries.
It was almost 11 months to the day since the Bulls ran in seven tries while romping to a 38-4 win on this ground last April.
Backed by another large and vociferous following, Bradford began as they meant to continue last night, forcing Widnes back towards their own line and asking some serious questions.
Jarrod Sammut, tasked with goal-kicking duties in the absence of Foster, failed to add the extras from a difficult angle.
Yet the Bulls continued to probe and scored again soon after when Keith Lulia found Kearney advancing at pace inside the left channel.
The in-form full back sold a delightful dummy 20 metres out and had too much strength as he went on to ground the ball.
The try continued Kearney’s remarkable run of scoring in every game so far this season but Widnes soon steadied themselves and, on the back of successive penalties, almost forced the Bulls to breaking point.
Half-back Joe Mellor came desperately close to scooting over the line from close range but Bradford held firm and were soon given some much-needed respite thanks to a superb 40-20 from Danny Addy.
The tactical manoeuvre so often leads to a try for the attacking side and it was almost the case here as Addy and Sammut combined to find Lulia advancing like a steam train inside the left channel.
The Cook Islands international’s progress was halted but it was the Bulls who continued to look more dangerous with the ball in hand.
“Widnes, Widnes, give us a song,” came the sarcastic chant from the away end as the Bulls continued to feel at home.
An exhilarating break from Sammut saw him threaten to break clear from just inside his own half but another Widnes penalty saw the hosts march the Bulls back upfield and some excellent sniping from Rhys Hanbury led to Ah Van bustling over in the left corner.
He failed to convert his own try but Adam Sidlow began to make his presence felt after replacing Manuokafoa.
Widnes went desperately close when the ball went through several pairs of hands and culminated in Ah Van dropping the ball over the line when he looked destined to score.
The Vikings then gave a penalty away and Diskin, who had replaced Heath L’Estrange moments earlier, darted over from dummy half.
Then the real drama began.
Hock was among a number of Widnes players to contest Hicks’ decision to award an earlier penalty and swore at the referee before being sent off.
Either way, Sammut eventually kicked the conversion and the Bulls immediately looked to make their numerical advantage pay.
They battered the Vikings’ line for a sustained period thereafter and Sammut’s short pass sent Lulia bustling over the line.
Sammut could not convert but an interval lead of 20-4 was a commanding one against 12 men.
Blythe then succumbed to injury and was replaced by Murphy as the Bulls’ night began to unravel.
Widnes scored in the 44th minute when Hep Cahill sent Hanbury crashing over in the left corner.
Ah Van failed to convert but the penalty count began to go against the Bulls as the second half progressed and some neat handling led to Ah Van plunging over the line for his second try in the 49th minute.
Ah Van landed a fine conversion and the Bulls continued to find themselves on the ropes.
A penalty from Sammut gave them a little breathing space in the 59th minute and Nick Scruton’s fine break and offload almost sent Whitehead clear.
But with 11 minutes remaining, Widnes struck again when Lloyd White collected possession ten metres out and galloped over the line for a try.
Ah Van converted before he also kicked a penalty to level the scores four minutes from time.