Wakefield Wildcats 10, Bradford Bulls 23
It was difficult to put a price on this victory for Francis Cummins and his players last night.
Not many games are billed as relegation four-pointers in round two but the Bulls knew the significance of the match and they ran out worthy winners.
Inspired by big performances from the likes of Brett Kearney, Luke Gale and Matt Diskin, coupled with impressive debuts by Luke George and Anthony Mullally, Cummins saw his men produce a performance of courage, guts and undeniable spirit.
As if the Bulls coach had not suffered enough cruel blows in recent weeks, he lost Lee Gaskell to a knee injury in the first tackle of the game.
Danny Addy entered the fray and the Bulls never lost their focus in a hard-fought and often error-strewn encounter which has got their campaign up and running.
Much of the focus had been on Jarrod Sammut beforehand but in the end it was not about him, even though he had a try disallowed with the game hanging in the balance.
It was about an outstanding team performance from the Bulls, with George deserving a special mention for his display against his former club as he scored a well-taken try and justified being picked ahead of Elliot Kear on the right wing.
Victory was crucial, given that the Bulls could face a points deduction early next week.
The club’s ownership is at least on the brink of being confirmed, with the current board of directors set to be rubber-stamped as permanent owners today.
Yet such uncertainty was hardly ideal preparation for Cummins and his players going into such a pivotal match.
It should also be noted that Wakefield have hardly had a smooth ride in recent times but, despite a raft of departures, coach Richard Agar has fashioned a unity among his players not dissimilar to that of Bradford.
Cummins’ decision to play George ahead of Kear raised a few eyebrows, while Tom Olbison’s absence through concussion meant Warrington loanee Danny Bridge was elevated to the starting line-up.
Huddersfield prop Mullally made his bow off the bench, having arrived on a one-month loan deal – but the debutant that attracted most attention was, of course, Sammut.
The 27-year-old was a hugely popular figure during his two-year stay at Odsal and his decision to leave has deprived the Bulls of arguably their most talented player.
Sammut scored 25 tries for the club last season and came off the bench midway through the first half last night, with another ex-Bradford player in Paul Sykes starting at stand-off for Wakefield.
The Bulls were dealt a major setback when Gaskell went down injured in the first tackle of the contest. He hobbled around for a couple of minutes and tried to shake it off but it was to no avail and he was soon replaced by Addy.
Despite this blow, the Bulls remained composed and began asking some searching questions of the Wakefield defence.
Gale and Diskin were at the heart of everything and, with Kearney offering his customary attacking threat from full back, the Wildcats were under the cosh.
The Bulls went close on at least three occasions in the opening ten minutes as Kearney and Nick Scruton were halted just short of the line by some fine defending.
A grubber kick from Gale then caused panic in the home rearguard before Bradford led in the tenth minute when the ball was worked out to the left channel and Adrian Purtell took Chev Walker’s pass to barrel over the line.
The Australian international appeared to have been held up but video referees Steve Ganson and Ian Smith deemed he had grounded the ball and the try was given.
Jamie Foster’s conversion attempt rebounded off a post and Wakefield came back strongly, with George’s knock-on from Paul McShane’s crossfield kick inviting further pressure on the Bradford line.
That led to George being trapped in his own in-goal area at the expense of a drop-out in the 17th minute.
But moments later the Bulls fashioned another decent opening when Kearney and Purtell combined to find Foster advancing forward at pace inside the left channel.
His progress was halted but, with Gale a growing influence on proceedings, the Bulls looked capable of breaching Wakefield’s resistance again.
But the hosts replied in the 22nd minute when Richard Mathers’ burst upfield gave his team the field position to ultimately conjure a fine handling sequence which culminated in Dean Collis sending Peter Fox over in the right corner.
There was no shortage of handling errors from either side but the Bulls forced Wakefield to drop out in the 27th minute as the pendulum swung back in their favour.
They forced another drop-out moments later as Purtell threatened to ground a kick from Gale.
The pressure finally told in the 32nd minute when Diskin found Gale just short of the line and the Bulls scrum half produced a delightful offload to send Kearney over from close range.
Foster added the extras but five minutes before half-time Wakefield were denied a try by the video referee when Danny Kirmond narrowly failed to ground the ball.
Some astute defending from George at the expense of a drop-out then denied Wakefield a try in the left corner two minutes before the break.
Five minutes after the restart, Reece Lyne lost the ball and Gale and Adam Henry combined to send George scurrying over the line from ten metres out.
Foster converted but the momentum was soon back in Wakefield’s favour and, after Addy was placed on report for a tackle on Sammut, the hosts scored from the subsequent penalty as Ali Lauitiiti crashed over the line.
Sammut converted and came desperately close to scoring on the hour mark when Walker did just about enough to prevent him grounding the ball beyond the whitewash.
Adam O’Brien, having replaced Diskin early in the second half, then underlined his class with a fine dart from dummy half for Bradford’s fourth try with 15 minutes remaining.
He celebrated with gusto – as did the army of travelling Bulls supporters – before Gale’s late drop-goal confirmed it was job done.