Bradford Bulls 13 Featherstone Rovers 21
IT MIGHT not have been pretty and their Challenge Cup hopes may be over at the first hurdle but this performance should provide Bulls with plenty of confidence for the more important business of Championship survival.
One look at the wet and windy weather and the muddy pitch, and it was clear that this was not going to be a classic.
It was more like a war of attrition and there were mistakes aplenty from both sides.
Featherstone always had the edge and in the end proved too strong for a battling Bulls side, who nevertheless made sure this was an encounter in the balance until the latter stages of the second half.
That they managed to do this with one of their youngest sides for many years was to their credit.
With an average age of 21 years and seven months, this was always going to be a tough task against a Rovers side sitting pretty at the top end of the table having won five of their six league games to date.
Pundits and fans feared beforehand that the young Bulls could have been in for a hiding.
Already with none of their loanees available, Leigh Beattie’s side were further hamstrung by the withdrawal through injury of Oscar Thomas and Colton Roche.
Under-19s Reiss Butterworth and Evan Hodgson were brought in to make their debuts, with young Brandan Wilkinson also back in the line-up for his first action since the defeat to Rochdale.
But Fev were also fielding a much-changed line-up, missing their dual registration players from Leeds Rhinos.
While knocking off the remaining six-point penalty is Bulls priority, Challenge Cup progress would have added to the early-season optimism building at Bradford, who were looking to make it three home wins on the spin at Odsal.
It would have also provided crucial extra funds to the newly-formed Bulls following liquidation, with West Yorkshire rivals Leeds entering the draw in the next round along with Huddersfield Giants and new boys Toronto Wolfpack.
Bradford and Featherstone have history in the game’s most famous knockout competition.
Fev beat Bradford Northern in the 1973 final and also beat them in the semi-finals ten years later in a tie remembered for a fantastic solo try by a young Ellery Hanley for Northern.
But conditions at Odsal yesterday ensured the tie was a lot less memorable as both sides produced a series of errors in tough handling conditions.
The ball looked like a bar of soap at times as possession was coughed up time and again in the first half.
With the wind in their favour in the opening period, Bulls were hoping to gain an early advantage.
They were not helped when they lost James Mendeika to an injury just minutes into the game. On came teenager Hodgson for what would be a debut to remember.
Bulls got off to the worst possible start when Johnny Campbell, who had been switched to full back in the absence of Thomas, dropped the ball and Josh Hardcastle capitalised by running in to score under the posts and Kyle Briggs completed the simple conversion.
Campbell was guilty of dropping the ball again but he wasn’t the only one as Fev’s Andrew Bostock lost control of it with the line beckoning.
Leon Pryce tried to get Bulls going but his offload went astray and Rovers let Bulls off the hook with a forward pass when in a good position.
Rovers were having the better of things and former Bulls player Richard Moore looked certain to score in the left-hand corner but he was somehow stopped by some great home defence.
Hardcastle went over for his second ‘try’ but it was ruled out for a knock on before Fev went close again when they were held up over the line near the sticks.
Bradford ended the half positively when Leon Pryce showed a glimpse of his class with a dummy which came to nothing before Bulls looked like they were going over for their first try after completing a rare set, only for Frankie Mariano to make a great last-gasp tackle.
Bulls were playing into the wind in the second half and it looked like they were going to go further behind early on when Sam Day went over the line but he was deemed to have knocked on in the process.
Moments later and the hosts were back in it as Hodgson made a fairytale start to his first-team career with a try down the right-hand side. The 18-year-old jinked his way through three Fev defenders to touch down and leave Joe Keyes with an easy conversion.
Yet in keeping with the error-strewn encounter, Bulls made a mess of the kick-off and conceded a goal-line drop-out, although they survived the subsequent Fev attack.
A drop goal from Briggs edged Rovers back in front but Bulls responded with one of their own from Keyes to make it 7-7 and it was all to play for.
Rovers regained control with a superb piece of play from the impressive Jason Walton. The player who was due to play for Bulls this season before liquidation saw him end up at Rovers was a standout figure for the visitors.
He made a great angled run to the left to latch on to a pass from John Davies and cross the line, Briggs tagging on the extras to put Fev 13-7 up.
It was a rare moment of quality and Rovers consolidated their lead further when a high tackle 40 metres out saw Briggs kick for goal from long range and increase the advantage to 15-7.
And it was all over bar the shouting when Mariano’s inside pass saw full back Ian Hardman cross the whitewash.
However, the Bulls weren’t finished and Campbell went over for a try after a great kick from Keyes, who then kicked the conversion before the hooter sounded.
It was just reward for a battling display from Beattie’s side who, despite this defeat, can go into next week’s crucial clash with Dewsbury Rams in confident mood.