Widnes Vikings 22 Bradford Bulls 18
As the final whistle sounded to monumental relief from the Widnes supporters, new Bulls owner Marc Green looked at Robbie Hunter-Paul with a wry smile.
Green, perched high in the main stand, had just seen the club he had bought days earlier go agonisingly close to a fairytale victory in his first game as chairman.
Although Green’s expression was etched with disappointment at the result, he knew he had witnessed an outstanding effort from Francis Cummins’ players.
At 16-0 down after 35 minutes, Bradford could have easily buckled.
But a sin-binning for Chris Dean shortly before half-time gave the Bulls a numerical advantage, which they capitalised on immediately by scoring through Liam Sutcliffe and again through Elliot Kear shortly after the restart.
A mistake from the otherwise excellent Brett Kearney, who enjoyed his best game of the season, allowed Widnes what turned out to be a killer fourth try, scored by Odsal old boy Patrick Ah Van in the 52nd minute.
Yet there was no denying the spirit that Bradford showed in hitting back again through Kearney’s brilliant individual effort to make it 22-18 with 13 minutes remaining.
That encouraged hopes of a famous comeback win on the day they ushered in a new era but it was not to be.
Instead, Bradford remain bottom of the table on minus two points while Widnes collected their fifth win from six games.
There was plenty of positives to build on, not least the attacking threat that Bradford showed with ball in hand for much of the second half.
Ultimately, however, they were made to pay for a sluggish start which saw Widnes claim three tries, two of which were carbon-copy ‘show-and-go’ tries from Kevin Brown.
The Bulls were missing six key players in skipper Matt Diskin, Adam Sidlow, Dale Ferguson, Jamie Foster, Luke George and Lee Gaskell.
Sidlow’s absence effectively left Cummins with just two recognised props in Manase Manuokafoa and Anthony Mullally.
Manuokafoa started in the front row alongside the returning Chev Walker while Mullally was named among the replacements against his hometown club.
Adam O’Brien made his first Super League start in Diskin’s absence and Matty Blythe also made the starting line-up following his comeback last week.
After former Bradford forward Phil Joseph conceded an early penalty for holding down, O’Brien combined well with Sutcliffe and the ball was worked out to Adrian Purtell inside the left channel. He embarked on a marauding run and, although his progress was halted, Gale flighted a high kick to the right corner which Ah Van fielded expertly.
In the seventh minute, hooker Jon Clarke went close to burrowing over the line before Brown’s last-tackle bomb fell invitingly to Danny Tickle ten metres out.
Tickle could not quite control the ball and the Bulls survived, before fashioning a spell of pressure at the other end of the field.
O’Brien, James Donaldson, Gale and Sutcliffe were all involved in a promising move which ended when Walker lost control of the ball.
The pendulum soon swung back in Widnes’ favour and in the 14th minute they led when Adam Henry, who got better as the game wore on, knocked Brown’s long pass forward.
From the subsequent scrum, the Vikings moved the ball across the Bulls’ defence, culminating in Tom Gilmore ushering full back Jack Owens over the line from close range.
Tickle’s conversion attempt hit the post and Cummins soon replaced Manuokafoa with Mullally and Walker with Danny Bridge.
But it did little to quell the home tide and in the 24th minute, Sam Wood had to be alert to hack a teasing grubber from Brown clear at the expense of a goal-line drop-out.
From that next set, Widnes grabbed a second try as Brown showed impressive footwork and pace to weave his way through some leaden-footed Bradford defenders to scamper under the posts. Tickle added the extras to make it 10-0 and leave Bradford facing an uphill task.
Whenever the Bulls did get close to their hosts’ line, Widnes defended obstinately.
They claimed their third try in the 35th minute when Brown repeated the same trick; again dummying to pass to a team-mate before slaloming past Manuokafoa and Olbison, leaving both men on their backsides, to score all too easily.
Tickle’s conversion made it 16-0 and Owens almost claimed a fourth when he burst clear from deep before attempting to offload when he should have backed himself to score.
But moments later Bradford were handed a lifeline.
Olbison made a tremendous break from just inside his own half and was held down by centre Chris Dean, leading referee George Stokes to send him to the sin-bin.
The Widnes fans were furious as Olbison appeared to have knocked on but the Bulls capitalised and from the second tackle in the next set, Sutcliffe showed impressive strength to swat a Vikings defender aside to score close to the left corner. Gale applied a fine conversion to cut Widnes’ lead to ten points at the break.
The question was whether they could make their numerical advantage pay in the remaining eight minutes that Dean was off the field.
Three minutes after the restart, they conjured a brilliant handling sequence involving at least six players which found Elliot Kear in space in the right corner.
His path to the line was barred by some fine Widnes defending and then Gale’s last-tackle grubber went straight to a home player.
Still, the Bulls continued to probe and Kear was found in space again moments later only for his short kick to run dead.
But in the 47th minute, Wood embarked on a lung-bursting run down the left flank which took him close to the line, only to be denied by some fine defending.
On the next tackle, Gale showed intelligence to flight a high kick to the right corner and Kear finished in clinical fashion in front of the travelling supporters.
It was now officially game on.
Five minutes later, Kearney failed to deal with a kick into the left corner and Ah Van had the easiest task of touching the ball down.
Still the Bulls kept coming back, Walker going desperately close with a thunderous run before Brown denied Kearney with a brilliant saving tackle close to the line.
On the hour, Gale, Kearney and Henry combined brilliantly again to find Kear in the right corner but yet more aggressive Widnes defending kept the Wales winger out.
The Bulls switched play immediately and Wood looked to have finished off another fine handling sequence, only for him to be in touch when he grounded the ball.
It was now nearly all Bradford and Kearney, who was at the heart of all his side’s best attacks, then grabbed a brilliant individual try in the 67th minute when he collected possession 50 metres out before haring past a tiring Widnes defence.
Gale’s third conversion from as many attempts made it 22-18 and, despite their best efforts, the Bulls could not quite conjure a fourth try as Widnes held firm.