Catalan Dragons 30, Bradford Bulls 10
As Catalan’s partisan crowd celebrated their team’s victory on Saturday evening, Leon Pryce was among the last to depart the field.
The towering stand-off, Bradford born and bred, milked the applause from the home faithful before slipping down the tunnel.
The second half had become a torturous affair for the Bulls, who led 10-6 at the break to encourage hopes of a momentous victory.
Francis Cummins’ men played with freedom and flair in the opening 40 minutes, looking to keep the ball alive at every opportunity.
Tries from Elliot Kear and John Bateman were constructed and executed superbly.
They were testament to the Bulls’ expansive approach during an at times wonderfully open first half.
But Catalan got a sniff five minutes before the break through Julian Bousquet’s try, which may have raised a few doubts in the visiting dressing room during half-time.
Sure enough, Catalan and their hulking set of forwards – led by Remi Casty and Jamal Fakir – were not to be denied.
The Dragons were utterly dominant after the interval.
Buoyed by the intricate probing of play-maker Thomas Bosc, they controlled possession and constantly forced the Bulls back towards their own line with numerous repeat sets.
Whereas the Bulls enjoyed 21 sets in the in the opening period, they had only 13 in the second half.
The Frenchmen scored five tries after the interval and Pryce claimed the last of them from close range in the 72nd minute.
It felt like the ultimate insult.
Olivier Elima, who had spent the previous two seasons at Odsal, was among the first to congratulate the former Bulls stand-off.
“You can’t play against Catalan without any ball and that’s what happened in the second half,” said Cummins.
“We had a great first half and I think the ball was in play for all but ten minutes, which took a lot out of both teams.
“We showed when we got in good-ball areas that we could test them. But they had a lot of repeat sets in the second half and we only had three props, so it did take a lot out of us.
“Then you end up trying to force it and chasing the game – and it’s a very tough place to play as it is. Catalan are a big side and that can sometimes work in our favour if we can manage to turn them around.
“We did that in the first half and we looked really good – but not if you’re going to stand and wait for these big men. They’re going to run through you. Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough to stop them.”
It is worth noting that four Bradford old boys – Pryce, Elima, Ian Henderson and Steve Menzies – made significant contributions to Catalan’s victory.
The first half had begun so well for the Bulls, who were boosted by the return of Matt Diskin and Chev Walker after illness and injury respectively.
Keith Lulia had made the trip in the hope of being passed fit for the match but a final check on the dead leg he sustained against Hull KR revealed he had still not recovered.
That meant Adrian Purtell played 80 minutes alongside Elliott Whitehead in the centres.
Cummins has signalled his desire to make his team play the game in the right manner and Kear’s opening try was indicative of their bold approach.
It came in the 13th minute when a well-worked move saw the ball sent to the right-hand side after Catalan had coughed up possession 30 metres from their own line.
The ball was sent right and Bateman drew in the defence to create an overlap and his neat short offload found Whitehead advancing at pace.
Whitehead then showed intelligence to find Kear with a brilliant pass and the Wales winger finished with aplomb in the right corner.
Jamie Foster added the touchline conversion to give the visitors an early six-point-lead, which they extended to 10-0 just after the half-hour mark.
A high kick from Bosc was taken cleanly by Brett Kearney and the full back raced clear to make at least 40 metres before being brought to ground by a last-gasp tackle from Jason Baitieri.
The ball was sent wide to the right to Bateman, who set Whitehead free down the right edge and was tackled metres from the line by Morgan Escare.
However, Whitehead’s ball-carrying elbow did not hit the ground and he managed to get the offload back to Bateman, who scored in the right corner despite the best efforts of Elima.
Cummins, perched high in the main stand, remained calm and composed. He knew Catalan would fashion a response and it duly came five minutes before the break.
Referee Richard Silverwood awarded two penalties against the Bulls in quick succession and Catalan scored when Bousquet powered his way over from Bosc’s pass to cap a period of sustained home pressure.
Bosc, who had showed glimpses of his class during the first half and grew in influence throughout the game, added the conversion to make it 10-6 at the break.
The second half was a one-sided affair, with Catalans having all the ball and running in five unanswered tries.
A Bosc kick through on the last tackle ten minutes after the restart forced a goalline drop-out for Bradford.
From it, two drives from Elima and one by Michael Simon gave Pryce the platform to send the impressive Louis Anderson through the smallest of gaps in the defence.
The Kiwi back-rower scored ten metres in from the left touchline to level the scores and although Bosc missed the goal attempt, from the restart the hosts continued to build up a head of steam.
Casty and Pryce set up field position to set Escare away and the speedy full back sprinted away for a debut try which gave Catalan the lead.
Bosc added the extras – and on the hour a Foster pass inside intended for Purtell only found Damien Blanch, who engineered a move which ended with Daryl Millard scampering away to score in the left corner – despite Whitehead’s best efforts and a delay from the video referee – and stretch the lead to 20-10.
It was 24-10 when Henderson drew the cover defence and offloaded to the supporting Zeb Taia to go over under the posts, Bosc stretching that to 26-10 with his boot.
The scoring was completed with eight minutes remaining. Elima went close and from the play-the-ball Pryce looped around it to take the ball and squeeze his way over from close range.
The challenge for the Bulls now is to bounce back – Thursday night at Headingley would the perfect place to start.