Bradford Bulls 24, Salford Red Devils 38
As the home faithful vented their frustration with referee Phil Bentham at the final whistle, Francis Cummins had some choice words of his own.
Significantly, they were not aimed at the officials but much closer to home.
“You may well say there were some 50-50 calls that didn’t go our way, there always is, but our concentration wasn’t good enough,” said the Bulls head coach.
“We are not keeping teams under pressure for long enough.
“We gave Salford too much cheap ball and too much momentum. We weren’t good enough.”
That, in a nutshell, summed up the Bulls last night.
The visit of a Salford side apparently in turmoil following the removal of Brian Noble was seen as a major opportunity to wipe out their points penalty and move onto zero.
In truth it never looked likely as Salford, with Rangi Chase at the heart of all their best moves, outclassed Bradford with something to spare.
The Red Devils, under the guidance of new boss Iestyn Harris, were simply too quick and vibrant at times, particularly during the opening 40 minutes when the Bulls never really managed to gain a foothold on the game.
Cummins estimated his side had only 14 sets during the first half and it told as Salford largely dominated field position.
Yes, some of Bentham’s calls were questionable, but Cummins was honest enough to admit that his men ultimately got what they deserved.
A quick glance at the teamsheet confirmed this was the strongest-looking Bulls side for quite some time; perhaps the strongest of Cummins’ reign.
The Bulls coach had five props at his disposal in Chev Walker, Manase Manuokafoa, Anthony Mullally, Adam Sidlow and Jamal Fakir.
He chose to start with Walker and Manuokafoa and named the other three on the bench, which meant Danny Addy missed out altogether.
That raised a few eyebrows but it also underlined the new-found depth in Cummins’ squad – Tom Olbison and Danny Bridge did not even make the 19-man squad.
The return of Sidlow, skipper Matt Diskin and stand-off Lee Gaskell after injury served as huge boosts to the Bulls. But much of the focus beforehand also fell on Harris following his appointment last week.
The former Bulls playmaker was appointed by Salford’s controversial owner Marwan Koukash after Noble – still Super League’s most successful coach after guiding Bradford to five successive Grand Finals – was unseated last Friday.
Noble has been offered the position as director of rugby and, having met Koukash for coffee at the Lowry hotel in Manchester yesterday morning, he is understood to be weighing up his future.
Gaskell illustrated his quality in the second minute with a probing kick inside the right channel.
Salford dealt with it, however, and opened the scoring three minutes later.
Chase, who had torn the Bulls apart with a scintillating display for Castleford at Wheldon Road last season, advanced forward inside the left channel.
He slipped a neat pass to the supporting Gareth Hock and the former Wigan man galloped past the Bradford defence all too easily before a neat offload sent full back Jake Mullaney scampering over the line.
Mullaney could not convert the score but Salford – and Chase in particular – continued to look menacing when they advanced forward. The Bulls needed to steady themselves and patiently wait for an opening.
The message from up high by Cummins to his players would have been simple: keep your discipline, control the ball, complete your sets.
In the 14th minute, the Bulls fashioned a decent spell of pressure on Salford’s line following a strong run inside the left channel by Adrian Purtell.
The Australian made decent headway before his progress was halted by some fine defending but the Bulls quickly recycled the ball and Gale’s crossfield kick to the right corner asked questions of the Salford defence.
Francis Meli did well to pluck the ball out of the air and moments later the former St Helens man almost crossed the line in the left corner.
Again Chase was the architect, impishly dancing around several Bradford players before finding Meli in the corner, only for Brett Kearney to make a timely intervention to prevent a try.
But in the 19th minute, the Bulls hit back when Gale’s kick fortuitously fell back into his arms and he showed intelligence to usher Purtell over from close range.
Jamie Foster converted to make it 6-4 – but Salford, who introduced debutant Logan Tomkins midway through the first half, were threatening with the pace of their attacks.
After Mullaney was held up in the 22nd minute, Bentham harshly penalised Elliot Kear for a supposed knock-on after neat interplay with Adam Henry.
The Bulls supporters were furious and their mood darkened further when Salford scored from the next set as Tommy Lee’s short pass sent Junior Sa’u over the line.
Mullaney converted and, on the half hour, Bradford fans vented their anger again when Gale collected Dale Ferguson’s offload and darted through a gap for a certain score before Bentham called back play for a forward pass by the Scotland international.
In fairness to Bentham, it looked the right call and Salford soon scored again when Chase found Smith with an expertly-weighted pass and he touched down for a try Mullaney converted.
It got worse for Bradford shortly before half-time when Chase’s kick was criminally left by the home defence, allowing replacement Matty Ashurst to athletically ground the ball with his first touch.
The Bulls fashioned the perfect response after the break when Sidlow collected a pass from Adam O’Brien to barrel over the line and Foster converted with ease.
Moments later, Gale found Gaskell and his kick was caught by Kear in the right corner, only for Sa’u to deny him a try with a superb saving tackle.
But the hope did not last long as some more poor defending allowed Tony Puletua to crash over the line from Tomkins’ pass.
Bradford replied late on when Kear cut in from the right flank for a fine individual effort but it was not enough as Chase went over and then provided an exquisite pass to send Meli over the line.
Henry had grabbed a consolation for the Bulls when he scored from close range but plenty of supporters had began making their way home at that point.
After the Bulls’ fifth successive Super League defeat, Cummins could now look to ring the changes for Thursday’s visit of Leeds.