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Bradford Bulls show creativity and spirit to regain spot in top eight after first-half surge
Bradford Bulls 46, Castleford Tigers 32
Much has been made of the financial crisis engulfing the Bulls, and the subsequent war of words which has erupted these past few days, but mercifully last night was all about on-field matters.
It was about a group of players who continue to ignore the uncertainty hanging over the club and their own heads to produce the goods on the pitch.
It was about a team dripping with ideas and creativity during a rampant opening 40 minutes in which they scored six tries.
It was about a team who could end three years of failure at Odsal by making the Super League play-offs.
True, the Bulls switched off at various stages and the defensive side of their game left much to be desired at times, particularly during the second half when Castleford threatened to overhaul them.
Whether they can go on to qualify for the end-of-season lottery of the play-offs remains to be seen. Entering administration and being deducted at least four points could effectively end their campaign.
It is to be hoped that the Bulls can avoid that grim fate and claim a top-eight finish from a group of players whose spirit can never be doubted.
The Bulls have been decimated by injuries for much of the season, losing four players during last week’s Magic Weekend defeat as well as heart-attack victim Adrian Purtell, who is unlikely to play again this season.
Yet their teamwork and conviction in attack during the opening half last night was so good that you had to sit back and applaud.
It came as no surprise to anyone when Bradford broke Castleford’s resistance with a delightful try in the seventh minute.
Jeffries flighted a clever kick into the left corner, where Karl Pryce showed impressive strength and no little desire to pluck the ball out of the air.
But what followed next was little short of brilliant as he produced a lovely reverse pass out of the back door which bewitched a clutch of Castleford defenders and found Keith Lulia.
The Cook Islands international still had work to do but his strength took him over the line from close range to put the Bulls 4-0 up.
Luke Gale, who began to emerge as the game’s pivotal figure alongside Jeffries, could not add the extras from a difficult angle. But the Bulls were buzzing, dominating the physical battle up front and fizzing with ideas in the backs.
They soon claimed their second try when Jeffries found Gale on the visitors’ 20-metre line and he sent the advancing Kearney powering clear at pace with a perfectly-weighted inside pass.
Kearney’s pace and strength was too much for Castleford as he hurtled through the visiting rearguard for a fine score which Gale improved.
At 10-0 the Bulls were in control but they allowed their momentum to falter and the Tigers took advantage in the minute when a brief spell of sustained pressure saw Rangi Chase’s fine pass send centre Jordan Thompson over in the left corner.
Kirk Dixon missed the conversion and the pendulum quickly swung back in the Bulls’ favour.
In the 19th minute, Michael Platt made a fine break inside the right channel and found Ainscough with a fine pass.
His progress was halted by Brett Ferres but the Bulls recycled the ball quickly and some slick handling culminated in L’Estrange and Jeffries combining to send John Bateman over from close range.
It was a fine finish from the Bradford-born rookie and indicative of his physical prowess as he stretched out an arm to ground the ball.
Gale added the extras and it soon got even better for the Bulls as Bryn Hargreaves, who enjoyed an excellent game, provided the final pass to send Olivier Elima charging under the posts for a fine finish.
The conversion was simple for Gale but once again the Bulls went to sleep moments later to allow Castleford a second try.
This time the influential Chase conjured some magic footwork and two superb sidesteps allowed him to dance through the Bradford defence for a try which Dixon converted.
To the Bulls’ credit they responded in style and a fine hanging kick from Jeffries was caught and grounded by the hard-working Ainscough. Gale added the extras and the Bulls were cruising at 28-10 ahead.
Ainscough was at it again moments later, this time illustrating his speed and finishing prowess to scamper in at the right corner after collecting an exquisite long pass from L’Estrange.
Gale’s conversion left the Bulls 34-10 up but prop Nathan Massey took advantage of some poor defending to barrel over from close range shortly before the break.
Dixon added the extras but the Bulls were well in control at 34-16 ahead at half-time and the Tigers’ cause was not helped by losing Massey to injury shortly after the restart.
There was a welcome return to action for Ian Sibbit in the 45th minute as he replaced Tom Olbison, who had enjoyed a strong outing in the back row.
Sibbit had not played since injuring a shoulder during the Bulls’ win at a snowbound Castleford in round two. Yet it was the visitors who began to enjoy more possession and field position as the second half progressed.
They scored two tries in quick succession through winger Rhys Williams, who finished well from a fine pass by Danny Orr and then touched down after Ainscough spilled a high ball from Chase.
Dixon failed to convert the first one but did with the second, putting the Tigers to within eight points of the Bulls at 34-26.
Bradford needed a try and they got one shortly after the hour mark when some quick hands from L’Estrange and Jeffries sent Kearney powering over for his second.
Gale’s conversion gave the Bulls a little breathing space at 40-26 but Castleford refused to lie down and scored again soon after when Chase escaped the attention of a thicket of home defenders to go over from close range.
Dixon’s goal cut the gap to eight points again but a fine pass saw Jeffries find Kearney and his lobbed pass sent Ainscough over in the right corner for his hat-trick score. He celebrated by booting the ball in the air and Gale’s seventh goal was the icing on the cake. Attendance: 10,906