Bradford Bulls 38, Castleford Tigers 12
Brett Kearney weighed in with 15 tries and eight assists last season, winning a clutch of individual awards after an outstanding campaign.
Goodness knows what he might be capable of this year.
On Saturday the Aussie took his tally to five tries in three games, underlining his status as arguably the Bulls’ most influential player.
Certainly Kearney is taking a leading role in the new chapter being patiently written by Francis Cummins.
His coveted knack of being in the right place at the right time showed itself again as the Bulls recorded their second successive home win, ultimately with something to spare.
Stevo neatly summed up Kearney’s contribution during the live commentary on Sky.
“You get the impression we will see quite a lot of this fella in 2013,” he said after Kearney’s second hat-trick for the Bulls and third of his career.
“He has that rare ability of being able to position himself in all the right places.”
The 29-year-old, restored to his preferred position of full back, also produced a delightful pass to send Matty Blythe over the line for his third try in as many games.
Blythe’s 54th-minute score restored the Bulls’ lead and was the result of a devastating handling sequence involving Heath L’Estrange, Danny Addy and Elliott Whitehead before Kearney sent Blythe bustling over in the right corner.
It was a brilliant team try and, although the Bulls were undoubtedly helped in the second half by the sin-binning of Castleford duo Justin Carney and Jamie Ellis, there was no denying they were worthy victors.
Kearney’s opportunism then saw him collect a pass from Matt Diskin and show intelligence to usher Chev Walker, similarly outstanding, over the line for his first try in almost two years and the 99th of his career.
There was a proud moment too for home-grown second-rower Jobe Murphy, who came off the bench in the final quarter to make his debut and perhaps struggled to control his emotions.
His pent-up energy and aggression saw him concede a penalty after obstructing a Castleford defender as Matt Diskin burrowed over from acting half.
Diskin’s score was chalked off after Murphy’s indiscretion and the 20-year-old went on to concede at least two more penalties while also going close to crossing the line himself.
Murphy will get better and was rightly delighted to have finally made his bow after a year of injury torment in 2012.
Whitehead, meanwhile, was outstanding again. One of his team-mates described him as a “potential world-beater” on Saturday evening and on this evidence it was easy to see why.
As the dust settled on an entertaining, if penalty-filled, encounter, the Bulls were left to reflect on a thoroughly decent start to the season.
Concerns remain over the size of their squad, yet the spirit that Cummins has harnessed among his men is alive and kicking.
They grew stronger as the game wore on, which was perhaps testament to their fitness levels as much as desire.
Cummins, though, has the touch of a perfectionist about him and talked of the need to be more ruthless in attack.
Michael Platt’s injury meant the Bulls showed just one change from the Hull defeat as Addy partnered Jarrod Sammut in the halves, with Jamie Foster on the wing and Kearney at full back.
Castleford had ended a dismal run of eight successive Super League defeats when toppling champions Leeds the previous weekend.
They proved game opponents after losing debutant half-back Gareth O’Brien, signed on loan from Warrington, in the opening minutes after he was felled by Nick Scruton.
Two minutes later, the Bulls should have opened the scoring when Sammut broke clear but dropped the ball as he dived over the line.
Sammut should have scored and he knew it – but the Bulls finally made the breakthrough in the 14th minute thanks to the effervescent Kearney, who created and scored the try.
He planted a high kick into the right corner and showed alertness to support the next play which saw Elliot Kear’s deft pass send him scurrying over from close range.
A conversion from Foster, another quietly impressive performer with seven goals from as many attempts, put the Bulls 6-0 up.
Castleford hauled themselves back into the game on the back of three successive penalties, culminating in Ellis galloping over from ten metres out.
Ellis added the extras and in the 30th minute Addy was sin-binned by referee Steve Ganson for repeated infringement.
Two minutes later, though, Adam Sidlow collected possession just short of the line and showed impressive dexterity to squeeze over the line and put the 12 men of Bradford back in front.
That poured confidence into the Bulls and they went in search of a third try three minutes later when Sammut embarked on a searing run from halfway.
The enigmatic Aussie broke the Castleford line and showed impressive pace to leave a clutch of defenders for dead. His progress was eventually halted on the visitors’ 20-metre line but it hinted at the possibilities on offer.
Tom Olbison almost engineered a path through the Castleford defence as the Bulls made a mockery of their numerical disadvantage.
Two minutes after the restart, Castleford hit back when Kirk Dixon collected a kick to finish with aplomb, before Ellis levelled the scores at 12-12.
The 12 minutes later, Kearney was at the heart of the move which Blythe finished off to cap some intricate handling from several of his team-mates.
Foster converted to leave the scores at 18-6 and Sammut won the Bulls a penalty in the 59th minute after he was caught late by Michael Shenton. Foster’s right boot proved reliable again to give the Bulls a little breathing space at 20-12.
Murphy was soon introduced before his indiscretion cost the Bulls a try after Diskin crossed the line from acting half.
Moments later, Whitehead broke from inside his own half with a formidable run which saw his progress halted, before Carney was sin-binned for holding him down.
Ellis was shown a yellow card for repeated infringement and the Bulls made Castleford’s 11 men pay as Kearney’s deft pass sent Walker sauntering over from close range.
There was still time for Kearney to reclaim centre stage, first racing clear from 20 metres after taking a pass from Sidlow and then completing his treble after selling a delightful dummy to a Castleford defender. Inspiring stuff.