Bradford Bulls 0, St Helens 50
After two momentous victories, this was a brutal reality check for the Bulls.
St Helens, expertly guided around the field by the artful hands and educated boot of Luke Walsh, were 22-0 up and in total control at half-time.
Francis Cummins’ men had been genuinely competitive in the opening quarter and were trailing only 6-0 in the 28th minute.
Adam O’Brien almost scampered over the line from acting half with the score 16-0 and the interval approaching.
A try for Bradford at that point may have proved key in establishing a platform for another famous comeback.
Probably not, though, as St Helens always gave the inescapable impression they could move through the gears when the opportunities arose – and so it proved.
They scored five more tries after the break to underline the gulf in class between the sides and reaffirm their title credentials.
The Bulls coughed up far too much possession and generally struggled to complete their sets.
The omens were not good for Cummins' troops going back to Friday night when Wakefield won away from home for the second time in six days.
Wildcats skipper Danny Kirmond was a radio summariser at the Provident Stadium yesterday and would surely have been rooting for St Helens.
After following up their win at Hull with another victory at Widnes on Friday, Richard Agar’s men now lie eight points clear of the Bulls.
It has to be remembered that Cummins’ squad was decimated by injuries once again yesterday.
Manase Manuokafoa failed to recover from a hamstring injury and Luke Gale was also absent owing to sickness and then feeling his hamstring tighten up in training.
Their late withdrawals saw them join Matty Blythe, James Donaldson, Dale Ferguson, Jamal Fakir, Brett Kearney and Oliver Roberts on the sidelines.
At least half that number would command a place in the starting line-up and the rugby gods are just not smiling on the Bulls right now.
Coming up against a Saints side boasting seasoned Super League performers such as Jon Wilkin, James Roby, Paul Wellens and Sia Soliola, along with a number of rising home-grown stars and stellar recruits such as Walsh, was always going to be a mountainous task.
Whereas Saints could call on the services of Australia scrum half Walsh, the Bulls were missing their creative fulcrum in Gale.
His absence meant that Danny Addy partnered Lee Gaskell in the halves, while Elliot Kear lined up at full back.
Chev Walker was fit to return after a neck injury, while Antonio Kaufusi – one of the Bulls’ better players – and Adam Sidlow were the two starting props.
Yet Saints were superior in every department and Walsh looked to be in a class of his own at times as he scored a try, created several others and kicked seven goals in an 18-point haul.
The close-season signing from Penrith is being talked about as the playmaker that Saints have craved since the departure of the legendary Sean Long.
There was a stirring minute’s silence and minute’s applause to the victims of the Valley Parade fire 29 years ago.
The Bulls held their own for much of the opening quarter, with Gaskell looking particularly lively with the ball in hand.
Matt Diskin and Addy combined to find the former St Helens talent early on but his progress was halted just short of the line.
But Walsh gradually took the game by the scruff of the neck and emerged as the pivotal figure.
The visitors led in the 11th minute when young centre Matty Dawson embarked on a searing break inside the left channel from deep inside his own half.
Kear made a fine tackle to prevent a certain try but it was to no avail as Jon Wilkin went over from the next tackle after taking Roby’s short pass to cross from close range.
Bradford steadied themselves and some strong defending kept Saints at bay, with replacement prop Mose Masoe losing the ball as he looked certain to crash over the whitewash.
Gaskell tested Jonny Lomax with some searching high bombs but a teasing kick from Roby forced Joe Arundel to concede a goal-line drop-out in the 22nd minute.
It was only 6-0 at that point but Saints began to up the tempo and the Bulls struggled for any kind of fluency or pressure on their visitors’ line.
Gaskell failed to find touch with a penalty and Saints soon had a second try.
It came when Lance Hohaia was allowed the freedom of Odsal to scythe through the Bradford defence and, as Kear tackled him, the New Zealander found Walsh in support to race over from 20 metres out.
It was a fine score but all too easy from a defensive point of view – and three minutes later Saints scored a third try that was textbook in its simplicity.
Walsh chipped a kick to the right corner and winger Tommy Makinson evaded the attention of a statuesque Bradford defence to send the onrushing Lomax over the line.
For Bradford it was proving to be a tough afternoon’s work but Jay Pitts impressed with a fine shift at loose forward.
At 16-0 the Bulls were staring at defeat but Jamie Foster threatened to break clear down the left flank only to knock on.
Two minutes later the hosts went agonisingly close when, after good work from Kaufusi and Pitts, O’Brien spun away from a Saints defender from acting half.
He looked certain to cross the line before Saints replacement Soliola made a challenge to keep him at bay.
The visitors then grabbed a fourth try shortly before the half-time whistle as Wilkin took Walsh’s pass to score with consummate ease as he marched over the line unopposed.
Walsh’s third goal made it 22-0 – and it got worse for the Bulls six minutes after the break when Saints scored again.
Lomax advanced forward at pace and to his right found Jones, whose neat pass sent Makinson over in the right corner for a well-worked try.
That took the sting out of any hopes of a Bradford fightback and, as if to underline their superiority, Saints scored again six minutes later.
Walker lost the ball on halfway, gifting Saints possession with a wayward pass which soon led to Hohaia sending Adam Swift over in the left corner.
It was depressing stuff from a Bradford perspective and the miserable weather made it even harder to stomach for the rain-soaked supporters on the terraces.
When Saints scored their seventh try of the match in the 62nd minute, a number of Bulls fans began making their way for the exits.
Again it was simple stuff as Walsh’s pass found Soliola coming in on the angle ten metres out and he plunged over the line inside the left channel.
Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook then barrelled over from close range for an eighth visiting try, before Roby completed the scoring when he scooted over from dummy half.