YOU won’t find a bigger fan of rugby league than John Kear.

But even his lifelong love of the sport has been tested after a season that he calls the “longest ever”.

The Bulls played 22 games in a campaign that some thought might never happen.

Their fifth-place finish in the shortened Championship race represented further progress – although it doesn’t feel like that right now with last week’s play-off exit at Batley, the fourth loss on the bounce, still raw.

That limp over the line, as Kear described it, was among the topics on the agenda in this week’s performance meetings with the staff.

But the veteran coach was encouraged by the bigger picture, particularly with everything that has gone on around them.

“I’ve enjoyed the games but the preparations have been so difficult,” admitted Kear.

“I’ve been coaching for 30 years and I would say the week-to-week preparation has been the hardest of my time in rugby league.

“It’s simply because of the situation we found ourselves in with the pandemic.

“The last time like this was the Spanish Flu 100 years ago so it’s not as if we could draw on any experience.”

The fractured pre-season at the end of last year set the scene for all clubs with minimal close contact allowed, players forced to work in small groups and lockdowns stopping them from coming in at all for spells.

“Every coach found it difficult because you couldn’t train as you normally would. I think that’s why it has been such a strange season for lots of clubs.

“You just couldn’t do the amount of contact or wrestle work you would normally do because of the Covid protocols.

“The players couldn’t get stuck into each other on the mats and do some contact and quick play-the-ball work.

“That’s one of the reasons I feel we haven’t defended as I wanted. You only have to look at the points we conceded and that’s something we really need to improve upon.”

The disrupted build-up was a contributing factor in the high number of injuries throughout the game.

The Bulls were hit as hard as anyone as they lost strike player Matty Dawson-Jones from the off and Danny Brough, the seasoned general brought in to move them around the field, for half the season.

The problems with the pivotal roles at six and seven were an ongoing theme with Kear struggling to get Brough and Jordan Lilley on the pitch at the same time. Joe Keyes' Odsal return then proved sweet but too short.

Kear added: “We’d be lying if we said injuries didn’t impact our season.

“We haven’t seen Matty Dawson-Jones on the field and you could say he’s arguably our best three-quarter.

“I don’t think Danny Brough has played a dozen games for us and Jordan Lilley missed two periods with suspension initially and then also injury.

“Levi Nzoungou’s season ended at the beginning so we’ve had some major injuries. There was also George Flanagan’s suspension which I felt was pretty harsh.

“You’d be hard-pressed to find a season where your half-back selection has been so inconsistent.

“You expect middle unit men to get bumps and bruises but not so much your half-backs. That’s why they tend to have high player appearance records.

“We thought we’d solved the Brough/Lilley conundrum by bringing in Joe Keyes. Then a couple of weeks later Hull KR called him back and I can totally understand why.

“It’s difficult to rely on the loan market because you’re in the hands of other clubs.

“You felt you’d found the answer and then the problem was shifted. It’s been one of those years.”

Kear’s 2021 highlights were the two wins over old adversariesYork and the away victories at Newcastle, London and Whitehaven.

He said: “Our long-journey performances were very good.

“But what people tend to remember is the most immediate result. Even then, we didn’t play badly at Batley – they just played better than us which sometimes happens in a two-horse race.

“People say it’s only Batley but they came fourth in the league and will be very good again next year.

“It won’t be poor little Batley but the mighty fine Batley because they’ve retained the majority of their players and will again pose a threat.

“We’ve had some adversity and that’s why the playing group should be applauded for battling through and finishing where they did.

“The vast majority have a full-time job and then they’ve had a cotton bud stuck up their nose before they could do any training.

“We’ve had to put up with the protocols but also with a change of venue because we set out thinking we were going to play the full season at Dewsbury.

“Again, that’s another little obstacle that the players have had to overcome.

“When you look back in the cold light of day, yes we limped over the line and that was disappointing.

“But I don’t think people should just look at the last four games but the season as a whole and the obstacles placed in the way. They should feel that the group of players did a pretty damn good job.

"Obviously the next goal will be to further progress as a team.”