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No way back as two tries just before interval leave Bradford Bulls a cup mountain to climb
Warrington Wolves 32, Bradford Bulls 16
Bryn Hargreaves sank to his knees in despair and smashed both his fists against the turf in anger.
He looked inconsolable as he lay on the ground, presumably hoping an enormous hole would appear for him to sink into.
Adrian Purtell quite literally picked him up and cajoled him back into life – but there was no mistaking the magnitude of Hargreaves’ error.
On the stroke of half-time, the prop inexplicably dropped the ball on halfway as he attempted an offload, inviting Chris Riley to collect possession and race clear for a third Warrington try.
Hargreaves had been culpable moments earlier too, missing a tackle which allowed Wolves full back Brett Hodgson to scamper over the line.
Purtell’s 12th-minute try was just reward for Bradford’s early vibrancy and they led for much of the first half.
Yet those tries from Hodgson and Riley, coming so soon before the interval hooter, left the Bulls facing a mountainous task.
It was hard not to feel that they had effectively cost them the game.
That is harsh on Hargreaves, who has performed outstandingly well this season and whose commitment could never be doubted.
Nobody in the visiting dressing room would have been pointing fingers afterwards.
The Bulls gave everything and it was testament to the spirit within Mick Potter’s squad that they never threw in the towel.
A delightful try by Keith Lulia, undeniably the best of the game, threatened to make things interesting in the second half.
A late score from Olivier Elima gave the sizeable contingent of Bradford fans further reason to cheer.
But the bottom line is that when the quarter-final draw is made tomorrow morning, there will be no Bradford Bulls in the hat.
There will be no trip to Wembley this year – and no home game until June 4, when Castleford are the visitors for a Super League match.
It means there is no match-day revenue at Odsal for another five weeks. For a club battling for its very survival, that is seriously bad news.
Potter was in pragmatic mood afterwards when quizzed about the club’s off-field plight. “Ask Ryan Duckett,” he said with a weary smile.
Potter could at least see further signs of the improvement that have been made this season and the return of Luke Gale was a massive boost.
Gale played the full 80 minutes and his organisational skills were quickly to the fore as the Bulls made a bright start.
They did not seem fazed in the slightest about facing the 2009 and 2010 Challenge Cup winners on their own turf.
He made decent ground before Gale’s high bouncing kick was horribly misjudged by Riley. Purtell, a late addition to the Bulls squad after he shrugged off a hamstring problem, arrived like a steam train to touch down.
Video referee Steve Ganson deemed he had failed to ground the ball properly, a decision which Potter and even Warrington coach Tony Smith queried afterwards.
Smith was far from happy with the performance of referee James Child and made his feelings known in the post-match press conference.
Yet three minutes after being denied a try, Bradford and Purtell were celebrating.
This time Lulia brilliantly stole the ball from Ben Westwood inside the left channel, creating the field position for Gale, Hargreaves and Elliott Whitehead to combine before the ball ran loose. Purtell was on to it in a flash, collecting possession to race ten metres to cross the line in the right corner.
Peter Hood was off his feet in the directors’ box and celebrated with a punch of the air.
Gale booted a superb touchline conversion but Warrington, bolstered by the introduction of prop Garreth Carvell, gradually steadied themselves and began to ask questions of the Bradford defence.
Twice Ben Jeffries, deployed at full back and in the halves, looked shaky under the high ball.
Hodgson kicked to the left corner and Shaun Ainscough cleared the danger, at the cost of a goal-line drop-out, with Gareth O’Brien breathing down his neck.
Warrington’s threat for much of the first half was only fleeting and their final pass often proved their undoing.
However, in the 23rd minute a long pass from Lee Briers – which looked suspiciously forward – was caught and grounded by Joel Monaghan.
Heath L’Estrange, back after a two-match ban, replaced Matt Diskin and in the 26th minute Warrington went close when Westwood combined with Mickey Higham and attempted to ground the ball from close range.
Jamie Langley did superbly well to deny him by sticking out a boot to ensure no try was given.
At this point the Bulls had generally kept things tight, tackled as if their lives depended on it and always looked capable of threatening Warrington’s line.
In the 32nd minute, Briers found Hodgson but a fine tackle from Bateman put paid to his progress.
Three minutes later, with Warrington in the ascendancy, Briers kicked to the corner on the last tackle but Ryan Atkins could only knock on.
Moments later, a challenge by Bateman on Hodgson was put on report by Child and, as the interval approached, the Wolves struck twice in deadly fashion.
First Hodgson weaved his way through the Bulls’ defence, despite suspicions of an earlier obstruction from Westwood, before Hargreaves’ error allowed Riley to race clear from halfway.
Four minutes after the break, Monaghan touched down a teasing grubber kick from Hodgson – and it got even worse five minutes later when Atkins powered clear after a handling error by Burgess.
Bradford refused to lie down and conjured the try of the game in the 54th minute when the ball passed through the hands of seven men before the impressive Lulia finished off in the left corner. Gale could not convert but at 26-10 the Bulls had a glimmer of hope.
Briers then had a try disallowed by the video referee and Warrington lost prop Chris Hill to the sin-bin for interference with 15 minutes remaining.
Despite a late converted try for Elima, who showed impressive strength to cross in the left corner following a Gale kick, the Bulls conceded a sixth score in the dying embers. Monaghan completed his treble in the right corner and Hodgson kicked his fourth goal.