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Spirit of old evident as Bradford Bulls secure first Odsal win of the season
Bulls 12, St Helens 8
Olivier Elima whipped the crowd into a frenzy at the final whistle, waving his arms around in front of a delirious Main Stand.
Manase Manuokafoa was right beside him, punching the air like a madman and warmly embracing several equally jubilant team-mates.
The rest of Mick Potter’s men returned the rapturous applause from the crowd with clenched-fist salutes.
And for a moment the spirit of old flowed through a club that has enjoyed too few of these kind of successes in recent times.
A first home win of the season and a first victory over Saints at Odsal since 2007.
The performance and the scenes at the end told a story.
Of resilience, unity, trust; further evidence of the qualities needed to make this proud club a respected force again.
This was the most vivid indication yet that Bradford are heading in the right direction.
When Elliott Whitehead and Karl Pryce touched down in either half, the heart of all Bradford supporters soared.
When Elima’s challenge on Lee Gaskell sparked a major flare-up in which no Bulls player took a backward step, Odsal felt blood course through its veins.
The transformation from those early-season home defeats against Catalan Dragons and Wigan has been quite remarkable.
Credit to Potter, of course.
The spirit within his squad has rarely been in doubt but he has harnessed that togetherness in highly impressive fashion to conjure a winning formula.
Defensively the Bulls have improved beyond all recognition and confidence is growing with each passing week.
The fans who marched out of Odsal in disgust after the first two home games suddenly have a swagger about them. They are starting to believe in their club again.
That three pivotal contributions came from Bradford-born players in Whitehead, Pryce and John Bateman made victory all the more satisfying.
While Whitehead and Pryce scored the tries, Bateman just gets better and better.
Four successive Saturday evening games on Sky, three of which the Bulls have won, have merely allowed his talents to be seen by a national audience.
Brett Kearney excelled at full back once more, while the returning Elima and Adrian Purtell similarly made key contributions.
Bradford’s pack were superior to their St Helens counterparts. But this was a collective effort, from one to 17, as the Bulls underlined their play-off pedigree with the kind of grit and determination that deserves and usually gets its rewards.
A far from vintage St Helens team this may be – the result condemned Royce Simmons’ men to a fourth straight defeat, their worst run in recent memory – yet the Bulls still had to go out and perform in difficult conditions.
The Bulls forwards were up for the physical battle up front and Jeffries quickly emerged as a major threat, his intelligent kicking keeping the Bulls largely on the front foot.
As Bradford attacked the Coral Stand during the first half, chances were few during the opening quarter, although they almost led when Bateman looked to have finished off his own excellent work with a drive from close range.
The 18-year-old stretched out an arm to ground the ball but was instead penalised for a double movement. Still, it hinted at the possibilities on offer.
In the 23rd minute, Saints hit Bradford on the counter-attack in highly contentious circumstances.
Having defended four successive sets from the Bulls, the visitors hit their hosts with a sucker-punch which left a bitter taste in the mouth.
A clearly-forward pass from Anthony Laffranchi found Jon Wilkin and he supplied Paul Wellens as Saints engineered a fine break upfield.
Wellens’ progress was halted by Jason Crookes’ superb saving tackle but Saints kept the ball alive and worked it out for Andrew Dixon to collect Gaskell’s excellent flicked pass to cross in the right corner.
Jamie Foster could not convert and six minutes before the break the winger was at the centre of attention for the wrong reasons again when Jeffries’ high hick was hacked forward by Pryce.
It was a clear foot-race between Foster and Whitehead which the Bulls back-rower won as he grounded the ball, only to receive an accidental boot in the face by Foster as he attempted to clear the danger.
Sykes kicked the conversion in style and referee Richard Silverwood then awarded the Bulls a penalty and a shot at goal which Sykes gratefully accepted following Foster’s challenge on Whitehead.
Whitehead, to his credit, did not complain about the challenge and simply rose to his feet and carried on playing, while Foster was placed on report.
The Bulls continued to probe, with Matt Diskin and Heath L’Estrange influential around the ruck again and the likes of Manuokafoa, Bryn Hargreaves and Tom Burgess punching some sizeable holes up front.
They were rewarded two minutes after the break. Foster seemed certain that Jeffries’ hanging kick was going out on the full and inexplicably let it bounce, allowing Pryce to gratefully collect the ball to go over in the right corner.
Sykes could not convert but Foster was sinbinned for interference at the play-the-ball in the 56th minute as his night went from bad to worse.
Five minutes later, Elima caught Gaskell late, sparking a rumpus which summed up the fighting spirit within Potter’s players.
Bradford pushed for a killer third try with 15 minutes remaining and only a brilliant saving tackle from the outstanding Wellens denied Jeffries.
The Bulls’ game-management was to be admired but St Helens, it has to be said, seriously lacked cohesion and could have no complaints about the result.
They bombed the few chances that came their way until Francis Meli replied late on when he took a pass from Foster to race clear down the left flank.
Foster missed the conversion and cursed himself. It pretty much summed up what everyone already knew. This was Bradford’s night.