Castleford Tigers 32, Bradford Bulls 18
ALMOST five years have passed since the Bulls last won four Super League games in succession.
Jimmy Lowes’ men arrived at Wheldon Road aiming to achieve that feat yesterday but, despite a virtuoso display from Lee Gaskell, it proved beyond them.
Gaskell looked impossible to stop at times, dovetailing effectively with his Castleford-bound half-back partner Luke Gale to score a delightful hat-trick.
The former St Helens stand-off’s tries were testament to his class and running ability, with his final score a particularly special effort which saw him leave Luke Dorn for dead.
Gaskell snubbed interest from Super League clubs to stay with the Bulls and it is fair to say he will be one of the highest-paid players in the Championship next year.
He will certainly be one of the most talented.
Sadly, though, the Bulls were far too sluggish defensively yesterday and Daryl Powell’s men scored all too easily during a largely one-sided first half which saw them establish a 24-6 advantage.
Two more Gaskell tries, both converted by Gale, cut the gap to 24-18 midway through the second half before Daryl Clark showed blistering speed to race 80 metres and outstrip a clutch of Bradford defenders in the 64th minute.
That finally put the result beyond doubt and kept the Tigers in contention for the League Leaders’ Shield.
Joe Arundel and Jay Pitts both have two years left on their contracts at Hull FC while the future of Luke George also appears uncertain.
Those three all started yesterday, with George making only his second appearance under Lowes, the first being in the defeat to Huddersfield which confirmed the Bulls’ relegation.
Lowes and his team have not looked back since that day, embarking on a sequence of three straight victories until yesterday’s reverse.
Chairman Marc Green had missed all three due to being away on holiday but he looked like a man determined to make up for lost time yesterday.
The Bulls owner and managing director Steve Ferres took the decision to stand with the sizeable contingent of Bradford supporters behind the posts on the terraces during the first half.
At that stage, Green’s Tottenham team were in the closing stages of a 3-0 drubbing at home to Liverpool. But things were about to get worse for the Bulls owner as Castleford opened the scoring right in front of the end where he was positioned.
After Donaldson knocked on inside his own half, the Tigers quickly established the field position to put the visitors’ line under severe pressure, culminating in Andy Lynch barrelling over the line from close range.
Marc Sneyd added the extras and the Bulls struggled to get a foothold on the game.
Some neat footwork from Gale, seeking to impress his future employers and their fanbase, almost saw him slip Dale Ferguson in.
But Castleford held firm and, after the Bulls conceded the first penalty of the match for interference, the hosts soon claimed a second try.
Sneyd’s penalty moved the Tigers upfield and some delightful handling saw the ball pass through Lynch, Sneyd and Dorn before James Clare finished superbly in the left corner.
Sneyd’s conversion was equally imperious, handing Castleford a 12-0 advantage which they rarely looked like surrendering.
The Bulls attempted to fashion a response when Adam Henry drove at the heart of the Castleford defence inside the right channel. The New Zealander offloaded to the supporting Gale with a short inside pass but the England Knights playmaker knocked on and the opportunity was spurned.
Still, the opening hinted at the possibilities on offer for Lowes’ men if they could fashion enough decent field position in Castleford territory.
Sure enough, moments later Ferguson went over from close range but the try was disallowed for crossing and the Bulls were denied a foothold in the game.
Lowes then replaced Manuokafoa and Matty Blythe with Fakir and Donaldson respectively.
Blythe was too eager to make his mark, catching Dorn with a late high shot as the full back advanced towards the Bulls’ 20-metre line.
Moments later, Tigers hooker Clark was held up over the line but try number three did not take long to arrive.
The ubiquitous Sneyd found Michael Shenton inside the left channel and the Tigers captain spun in the tackle to find Dorn racing forward in support. Dorn could not be stopped as he raced through a gaping hole in the Bradford defence.
Sneyd’s conversion went in off a post, which seemed to confirm this was Castleford’s day, but Lowes has fashioned some spirit in this side.
They responded when Gaskell produced a fine dummy to finish off a neat move involving Gale, who added the simple conversion to make it 18-6.
But the Bulls looked far less secure defensively than they had in their previous three outings and conceded a fourth try on the stroke of half-time.
This time Shenton, who has enjoyed an outstanding season, collected a pass from Sneyd to weave his way through the Bulls and a statuesque Brett Kearney to score.
Again it was too easy but Castleford cared not a jot as Sneyd’s fourth successful conversion handed his team a thoroughly deserved 24-6 interval advantage.
Yet the Bulls, and Gaskell, were not finished.
Within three minutes of the restart, the rangy stand-off collected a pass from Gale and showed some fine footwork to scamper over the line from close range.
Twelve minutes later, he collected a pass from Gale and brilliantly rounded Dorn, Castleford’s last line of defence, for a try which Gale converted to make it 24-18.
Bradford strived to pull level and would have done but for Jamal Fakir’s fumble just yards from the posts. The Frenchman’s mistake proved costly as Clark showed the Castleford fans what they will miss when he leaves at the end of the season with a brilliant 80-metre try after taking a quick penalty tap.
The victory was sealed when Sneyd put over a straightforward penalty two minutes from time. Game over.