Bradford Bulls 17 Featherstone Rovers 16

BULLS gave an early sign that they are capable of being in the mix at the top end of the Championship after overcoming rivals Featherstone by the finest of margins.

Dane Chisholm’s drop goal with 11 minutes to go separated the sides in a tough arm wrestle in Arctic conditions at Odsal.

And while it is far too soon to be talking about play-offs or promotion, this victory against a team who only missed out on a top-four spot by a point last season, suggests Bulls can make a genuine challenge themselves.

Having made plenty of changes in the off-season, chief among them being the appointment of 30-year-old Australian Ryan Carr as head coach to succeed John Duffy, Rovers might be something of an unknown quantity as the campaign begins.

But with signings such as World Club Challenge winner Cameron King and Papua New Guinea international trio Ase and Watson Boas and Thompson Teteh, Fev are expected to be in the mix for the play-offs.

Add to that the handful of Leeds Rhinos players on dual registration in the visitors’ squad, including Luke Briscoe – back in Featherstone colours having made a permanent move to Headingley in the winter – and there was no doubt that this Odsal opener would test Bulls credentials.

John Kear’s side had already hinted they will be able to more than hold their own following promotion from League One last year by winning the K2 Yorkshire Cup in pre-season.

But that was still essentially a friendly competition so all eyes were on how Bulls could stand up to a genuine contender now the action starts for real.

Despite freezing temperatures the night before, the game went ahead thanks to the efforts of the Odsal groundstaff, who were up at 5am to clear snow and prepare the pitch.

The cold and wintry conditions meant expansive rugby was unlikely and so it proved in the opening stages.

The arm wrestle was largely even before Featherstone took the lead when a grubber kick from Ase Boas was not dealt with and his brother Watson Boas took advantage as Bulls conceded a scrappy try.

The simple conversion from Watson Boas gave the visitors an early six-point lead.

Bulls had a chance to open their account when they were awarded a penalty in front of the sticks. They opted to run it but the greasy ball slipped out of Elliot Minchella’s grasp.

Ase Boas continued to ask questions of the Bulls defence with a high kick which Ethan Ryan struggled to deal with close to his own line.

But Bradford scored their first try of the season after 30 minutes – and it was a fine one.

After some good work by Jordan Lilley, a high bomb to the left-hand corner by Chisholm on the last tackle saw Ryan bravely put his body on the line. Though he couldn’t grab it, he was able to parry it back for debutant Jake Webster to go over for his first try for his new club.

Chisholm was unable to make the tough conversion from the touchline but Bulls were up and running.

At the other end, Fev continued to test the Bulls defence with another high kick which saw Jy Hitchcox concede a second goal-line dropout.

Bulls survived and, with James Green and Mikey Wood giving them fresh impetus down the middle from the bench, they finished the half the stronger.

Despite the tricky handling conditions, they almost scored a fantastic try after great work from Brandon Pickersgill.

The full back weaved in and out of the Fev defence and produced a superb offload inside to Webster, who looked like he was in but the visitors survived and went in at half-time with a marginal lead.

However, it didn’t take long before Bulls were in front for the first time early in the second half.

Lilley spotted a hole in the Fev defence with a kick forward and Chisholm found himself in a foot race to reach the ball first.

The Aussie put the afterburners on and showed his pace to win the race to touch down from 40 metres. He was unable to convert but Bulls were 8-6 up.

The half-back was in the thick of the action again as the hosts increased their advantage five minutes later. He almost went over again from close range before George Flanagan finished the job from dummy half.

This time Chisholm converted for his first points with the boot.

Now in the ascendancy, Bulls threatened again when Hitchcox pounced on a loose ball in his own half and charged forward. He had options out wide to his right but he opted for a loop pass inside to Flanagan, who was held down illegally as Fev looked to slow play down.

Chisholm made no mistake with the penalty from in front of the sticks and it looked as if Bulls were edging towards a comfortable win.

Far from it though as Rovers levelled matters with two tries in quick succession.

First, Hitchcox was caught trying to shepherd a ball out thinking it was going dead, only for Briscoe to steal in and touch down in the left-hand corner.

Watson Boas was short with the conversion attempt but Fev struck again when, following good work by Brad Day, King scrambled over the line with a show and go from dummy half – much to the annoyance of coach Kear, who afterwards said his team had been preparing in training for such a threat.

Watson Boas completed the simple conversion to make it 16-16 and, with the momentum now in their favour, Featherstone will have fancied claiming the spoils.

Hitchcox was dragged into touch deep in his own half but Bulls withstood the attack before Chisholm struck what proved to be the crucial blow.

With 11 minutes to go and Bulls on the attack, the Aussie showed his composure by converting a drop goal from around 20 metres in front of the sticks.

Now all the Bulls had to do was keep the ball or keep Rovers away from the danger zone.

And they managed to do this pretty well with few further scares. In fact, it was Bulls who came closest to adding to the lead.

A kickable penalty was turned down in favour of going for a try to seal it once and for all but Liam Kirk spilled the ball on the attack.

Thankfully it didn’t prove costly as a Fev knock-on with less than a minute left on the clock was greeted with huge cheers by the home crowd, who knew victory was in the bag.

It couldn’t have been any closer but the Bulls had showed they are back and they mean business.