Bradford Bulls 18, Castleford Tigers 36
As Francis Cummins assessed his side’s defeat yesterday, there was one overwhelming positive from which he could take solace.
“I’m proud of the effort because we had a team who were fully committed,” reflected the Bulls coach.
“The people in this club right now have got character and they showed it again.”
Cummins bemoaned his side’s errors in the final quarter as Castleford ran away with the game courtesy of three late tries.
Crucially, however, he could not fault the spirit.
After a week in which Garreth Carvell and Jarrod Sammut walked out on the club, the significance of that could not be overstated.
The Bulls coach did not mention either player by name following their departure from Odsal.
Then again, he did not need to.
It was clear that from the players who remain, there is a collective desire on which Bradford’s fight against relegation will be founded.
Cummins could see his team docked Super League points this week following the administration of OK Bulls Ltd, the club’s former holding company, on January 31.
The ownership of the club is also hanging in the balance after Richard Lamb spoke over the weekend of his intention to take this famous rugby league institution forward.
The current board, under the guise of Bradford Bulls 2014 Ltd, would appear favourites to be given the green light to lead the club on a permanent basis.
Chairman Mark Moore used his programme notes to talk about a “five-year plan” to make the club sustainable and ultimately profitable.
There are other parties interested in taking ownership of the Bulls and the outcome will effectively shape the club’s future.
Cummins, for his part, can only focus on on-field matters and victory looked possible for the best part of an hour yesterday before that trio of late tries handed Castleford the points.
The return of Brett Kearney was a massive boost for the Bulls after he missed all three friendlies following his recovery from an operation on his sternoclavicular joint.
The departure of Sammut on Friday meant Lee Gaskell made his debut in his favoured position of stand-off alongside Luke Gale.
Gaskell dovetailed effectively with Gale in the first half in particular and the former St Helens man showed class with some clever kicking and neat handling.
There was also a Super League bow for fellow new recruits Adam Henry and Danny Bridge.
The visitors included former Bulls captain Andy Lynch in their starting line-up, while close-season signings Marc Sneyd, Liam Finn and Frankie Mariano were also in coach Daryl Powell’s squad.
A sizeable contingent of Castleford supporters made the short trip along the M62 hoping to see a repeat of their side’s 66-10 friendly win a fortnight earlier.
But with Kearney in the side, the Bulls always looked a more assured outfit and he was typically pivotal in helping them to get on the front foot.
After Castleford were caught offside, Bradford led in the fourth minute when, from the subsequent penalty, the ball was worked cleverly across the face of the visiting defence.
Adam Sidlow found Gaskell to his right and the former St Helens man in turn sent the marauding Danny Addy barrelling over the line.
Jamie Foster added the extras and belief grew in the home players and crowd that this could be the Bulls’ day.
Four minutes later they threatened a second when Adrian Purtell intercepted Weller Hauraki’s errant pass on the Bulls’ ten-metre line.
The Australian centre showed a decent turn of pace to make 50 metres before his progress was halted by the cover defence.
Purtell’s early effervescence was exemplified when he chased a kick and forced Justin Carney into his own in-goal area, making Castleford drop out from under their posts.
Still the Bulls continued to probe and in the 13th minute Elliot Kear displayed his defensive awareness with an outstanding tackle to bring down Daryl Clark as the highly-rated hooker threatened to outstrip the home side.
Yet there was no denying that, with Matt Diskin, Gale and Gaskell all combining well, the Bulls looked the more potent in attack.
Castleford refused to buckle once more and they held firm again when Addy took another smart pass from Gale before being tackled just short of the line.
A teasing grubber kick from Gaskell into the left corner was intended for Foster but it was overcooked and the opportunity was lost.
Castleford continued to enjoy brief purple patches and it was to Bradford’s credit that they defended so doggedly.
With Scruton and Sidlow having laid a solid platform for the Bulls during the opening quarter, they were replaced by Manase Manuokafoa and Chev Walker respectively.
Seven minutes before the break, the visitors hit back when Hauraki collected possession 20 metres out and past Gaskell to score all too easily.
Kirk Dixon added the extras to make it 6-6 at the break – but three minutes after the restart, Gale’s crafty kick was not dealt with and Foster was on hand to ground the loose ball.
He added a fine conversion but two minutes later Castleford were level again when Manase Manuokafoa’s attempted offload was seized upon.
An exquisite offload from Finn cut out the Bulls’ left-edge defence and sent Dixon diving over in the right corner for a try he expertly converted.
Remarkably, however, Bradford hit back three minutes later when Gale’s superb hanging kick on the last tackle found Purtell and he rose highest among a thicket of players to ground the ball.
Tom Olbison then blotted his copybook when he knocked on and Dorn’s grubber kick forced the Bulls to drop out.
When Castleford’s third try came it was a counter-attacking effort which saw Dixon find Finn, whose offload under pressure sent Clark powering over the line.
Dixon converted to make it 18-18 but then skewed a relatively simple penalty wide on the hour mark.
However, moments later Finn sent a high kick into the left channel and Carney was on hand to ground the ball for a try which Dixon converted.
With nine minutes remaining, Kear looked to have burst clear from deep inside his own half but referee Robert Hicks had called back play for an earlier knock-on by Henry.
As the Bulls began to tire, Dorn crashed under the posts with seven minutes remaining, before Grant Millington collected a flat pass to similarly go over from close range.
It felt harsh on the Bulls but, as Cummins stated, there was a spirit which bodes well for the tough challenges that lie ahead.