Wigan Warriors 22 Bradford Bulls 30
After one of the most traumatic weeks in the Bulls’ history, the hope was that Mick Potter’s men would merely do themselves justice last night.
But going away with the two points?
That was surely sweet beyond their fondest imaginings, and yet it was no more than they deserved after a truly incredible effort from one to 17.
There was also the 18th man; the large and raucous visiting contingent who sung themselves hoarse.
At the final whistle came an enduring image. Potter’s men, who may not get paid July’s wages, headed straight over to the fanatical Bulls followers at the DW Stadium and danced in delight in front of them.
It said everything.
In this most dramatic of seasons, perhaps we really should not be surprised that the Bulls should produce something like this.
The spirit and togetherness that Potter’s men showed was testimony to their professionalism and pride in the badge.
Like every visiting supporter who made the trek across the Pennines last night, the players still believe in Bradford Bulls.
They still cling to the hope that a solution to the club’s financial crisis can be found.
It is understood that potential buyers are beginning to make themselves known to administrator Brendan Guilfoyle but the clock is ticking and a breakthrough must be found soon.
As adverts go for this rugby league institution, events last night were the perfect sell.
It was about a team who have emerged as a respected force under Potter’s astute guidance and a fanbase who will stop at nothing to help save their club.
As Potter rightly said afterwards, though, this was a team success and it would be unfair to single individuals out.
Potter rated every one of his men as nine out of ten with their performances.
Again, that said much.
Wigan had won 13 games in succession going into this game but they were missing Sam Tomkins and were forced to play the final quarter with 12 men after hooker Michael McIlorum was sent off for punching Olivier Elima.
A teasing high kick from Luke Gale posed an early test for debutant Jack Murphy at full back but, with Jarrod Sammut bearing down on him, the 20-year-old stood firm.
Yet the Warriors immediately steadied themselves and were ahead in the third minute after cutting the Bulls apart down the left flank from a penalty.
England second-rower Gareth Hock broke from the Bulls’ 40-metre line and found George Carmont advancing forward at pace inside him.
The visiting defence was stretched to breaking point as Brett Kearney came forward to cover, only for Carmont’s intelligent pass to send Anthony Gelling scampering clear.
Josh Charnley failed to add the extras and the Bulls began to fashion an impressive response, with Gale emerging as the fulcrum of their efforts.
In the ninth minute, the visitors lost former Warriors man Pryce to the sinbin after he was penalised for holding down.
Nevertheless, the Bulls roused themselves once more, with Sammut’s neat pass finding Keith Lulia in space in the left corner in the 15th minute.
Despite showing impressive strength, the Cook Islands international, who endured a nightmare debut for the Bulls against Wigan back in February, could not find a way through.
But moments later Wigan struck again in devastating fashion when young Murphy showed formidable strength and pace to outstrip the Bradford defence and evade Shaun Ainscough’s desperate lunging tackle to scamper clear from 25 metres.
Ainscough, a born and bred Wiganer, was on his knees as his former club went 10-0 up following Charnley’s successful conversion attempt.
The Bulls did enjoy some brief purple patches but they could not make them pay.
Still, the visiting contingent kept singing and supporting their team.
Bateman kept plugging away and always looked capable of creating something when in possession.
Rebuilding the club without their best young player will take some doing, but for now at least the England Academy captain remains an employee at Odsal.
Midway through the opening period, and with Gale having come increasingly to the fore, Bradford responded with a delightful try.
After Epalahame Lauaki was penalised for holding down, the Bulls were afforded the field position to pin the hosts back deep towards their own line.
Some slick handling saw the ball pass through Gale, Brett Kearney and Sammut, culminating in the latter’s offload sending Pryce charging over in the left corner.
Pryce did well to race towards the posts from inside the in-goal area, giving Gale a simple conversion to cut Wigan’s lead to four points.
Ten minutes before the break, referee Tim Roby gave Wigan a dubious-looking penalty which could and should have proved costly for the Bulls.
Liam Farrell drove at the heart of the visiting defence, bursting through a gap before his fine pass found Gelling unmarked in the left channel.
He looked to have a relatively simple task to cross the line but knocked on just ten metres short, much to the disgust of Farrell.
Tom Burgess then came on for Manuokafoa and moments later, after some fine work from Bateman from halfway, Lulia broke clear with a quite brilliant run and pass to send Kearney sprinting clear.
Gale added the extras but the pendulum quickly swung back in Wigan’s favour and, following a period of sustained pressure, replacement prop Ben Flower collected a flat pass to crash over the line from close range.
Charnley added the extras but the Bulls produced a stunning response to claim their third converted try on the stroke of half-time.
A devastating handling sequence saw the ball go through several players and saw Burgess and Bateman combine brilliantly to send Lulia plunging over in the left corner.
Gale converted to leave the Bulls 18-16 up at the break but the Warriors replied when Dom Crosby went over from close range in the 51st minute.
However, McIlorum was then dismissed for landing a punch on Elima, leaving the Warriors down to 12 men for over 20 minutes.
The Bulls continued to probe and were rewarded in the 69th minute when Heath L’Estrange’s pass sent Elliott Whitehead plunging over the line in the right corner.
The visiting supporters roared their approval when Gale’s excellent conversion put the Bulls 24-22 ahead.
And victory was assured when Bateman’s high kick was spilled by Charnley and Pryce touched down.
Cue delirium among the Bulls following, and why not?