Bradford Bulls 14 London Broncos 18

JOHN Kear was excited when the Championship fixture computer hurled the Bulls in the deep end.

Kicking off the new campaign with a trio of the competition’s strongest foes sounded a daunting prospect.

But it whetted the appetite for the veteran coach who was happier to meet the big boys head on from the off.

He has viewed the opening month as a perfect yardstick for how far his new-look squad have come – and how much further they need to progress.

Their first-day meeting with a Broncos side fresh out of Super League suggests that the Bulls intend to be just as competitive this year as they were last, clawing their way back from 18-4 down to make it uncomfortable for the visitors.

It was a valiant effort to run one of the promotion favourites so close, three second-half tries keeping this contest bubbling right to the final hooter.

Kear and the Bulls faithful will have seen much to be satisfied with even in defeat.

Danny Ward’s London side are much changed from the team that made a good fist of defying the odds and clinging on to their top-flight status. They had five club debutants including former Bulls duo Cory Aston and Tuoyo Egodo.

But the Bulls, too, have a very different look to last year having lost so many key players to Hull KR and others over a tumultuous winter.

They also have to get to grips with the surroundings of their new rented home, although the pitch that greeted their Dewsbury curtain-raiser had held up well after staging the landlords’ loss to Leigh two days before.

Kear was boosted by the return of Anthony England after his recent illness, one of five new faces making their first competitive outing, and vice-captain Sam Hallas.

A decent-sized crowd were roaring in the first minute when Broncos full back Kieran Dixon came up with an immediate error. Bulls looked to capitalise but Rowan Milnes was held up as he wriggled his way over.

The Bulls built the pressure in the opening moments with England earning more cheers by nailing Dixon in front of the line.

Milnes forced the first goalline drop-out with a well-weighted kick. But the hosts were unable to press home their advantage after being caught napping as the Broncos played it short and Egodo regained possession.

Having been in the ascendancy, the Bulls fell behind on 14 minutes as London claimed the first try of the new season.

A neat link-up between Aston and James Meadow on the last tackle set up towering centre Guy Armitage to plough over down the short side.

Greg Richards made a pig’s ear of Jordan Lilley’s ensuing kick-off but again London kept possession from a shallow goalline kick.

The momentum had shifted and the Broncos struck again with a second try in five minutes, Rob Butler crashing over to the left of the posts.

Lilley put the next kick out on the full but the Bulls cleared their heads to find a good response.

Greg Johnson thought he had scored from a Milnes kick but referee Aaron Moore ruled it out for a knock-on in the in-goal scramble from Lilley.

Milnes was here, there and everywhere and weaved his way through a hole before coughing up the ball right in front the posts.

The young stand-off, back at the Bulls on a year’s loan from Hull KR, then spiralled a kick towards the corner.

Joe Brown made a valiant effort to touch it down in play but the momentum from his dive carried him into a painful collision with the fence behind the in-goal.

The Bulls were not shirking the physical challenge and Steve Crossley was loudly applauded when he took a breather. Replacement Ebon Scurr immediately came up with a huge hit.

Dan Norman was stopped just in front as Broncos pushed to extend their advantage. The Bulls could not afford to slip further behind.

They were having to defend more and more as half-time approached and were grateful when Sadiq Adebiyi lost his footing 10 metres out as London kept the ball alive threateningly on the last tackle.

But the Bulls rallied and twice went agonisingly close to getting on the scoreboard.

Matty Dawson-Jones was inches away from crossing over from Milnes’ grubber kick before Hallas was held up as he burrowed in from dummy half.

But the Bulls got their reward five minutes after the restart – and it was well worth the wait.

Milnes was at the hub again, chipping through and regathering before the ball was whisked through three pairs of hands before Ross Oakes released Dawson-Jones to gallop down the touchline from 20 metres out.

Tom Doyle replaced Hallas and instantly had the crowd on their feet with an explosive burst up the middle.

The fans were getting noisier as the Bulls continued to hold their own – and hit straight back after conceding a third London try.

James Meadows carved open the defence with a mazy run before drawing in full back Brandon Pickersgill to send over Josh Walters to score.

But the Bulls responded two minutes later as Doyle powered under the posts from dummy half on the final tackle.

It had become an exhilarating duel and Pickersgill produced a superb solo tackle to thwart Jacob Ogden 40 metres out as the London winger threatened to break away.

Pickersgill then repeated the trick to cut down Armitage with a try-saving stop on the 20-metre line. The fitness levels that Kear had talked up in pre-season were coming to the fore.

Crossley took three black shirts with him and carried them another 10 metres as the Bulls refused to go down without a fight.

That was underlined five minutes from the end when Pickersgill’s long pass picked out Dawson-Jones to cut inside for his second try of the afternoon.

It set up a grandstand finish, although Lilley’s kick came back off the upright to keep the deficit at four.

Armitage kicked straight out of play indicated how rattled the Broncos had become. But they managed to play out for time for a win that was far tighter than they might have anticipated.