THE start of a new season is always the best time of the year, with fans full of optimism, blissfully unaware of how their beloved team will screw things up in the coming months.

But what if Bulls don’t do that in 2022?

Ever since the nadir of liquidation and relegation in 2017, they have been on an upward curve, even if that progress has been slower than many might have liked.

Promotion from League 1 in 2018 was a must, and that was just about achieved with a play-off final win over a Workington team who had beaten them twice during the regular season.

After an inconsistent start and middle to the 2019 campaign, Bulls hit their straps towards the back end of the year, winning seven of their last 10 games to miss out on the play-offs by a single point.

We can realistically ignore 2020, though that season ended in March with Bradford almost pulling off a sensational Challenge Cup win at Wakefield.

There were a lot of grumbles in 2021, and granted Bulls threw in a few stinkers, like Sheffield away and Whitehaven at home, but there were also the seven wins in a row, victories at Newcastle and York, and ultimately, a Championship play-off place.

Promotion was always going to be a tough ask, with Toulouse and Featherstone winning 34 of their 35 regular season games combined.

But with the French side mercifully now in Super League, and Fev transitioning after the loss of inspirational head coach James Webster, do Bulls have a chance this time around?

Head coach John Kear seems to think so, telling me after the play-off defeat at Batley in September: “Next year, we need to go from being competitive and making the play-offs, to being contenders for promotion.

“That’s the challenge we’ve got.”

So does Jordan Lilley, with the talented scrum-half saying earlier this month: “I want an even better year (than 2021) and I want us to go a level up, and I think we’re capable of playing well enough to help Bradford go up to Super League.

“As a team, we need to build on the stepping stone of 2021, and now it’s time to push for the Championship play-off final.

“That’s the expectation for 2022, and we’ll have underachieved if we don’t get there.

“We want to go up, but we certainly wouldn’t be happier with finishing any lower than the play-off final.”

Is this all talk, or can Bulls actually back up these big expectations on the pitch?

Featherstone probably still start the season as slight favourites. They may have lost Webster, but it is hard to argue with the subsequent appointment of legendary Bulls prop Brian McDermott, who coached Leeds to four Super League titles and Toronto to Million Pound Game glory.

On the playing front, several have dropped down from Super League to complement an exciting existing roster containing the likes of Craig Hall and Dane Chisholm.

And if that wasn’t enough, Fev announced a sensational triple swoop on Wednesday, in former Melbourne half-back Ryley Jacks, six-time major trophy winner Adam Cuthbertson and Australian prop Ben Mathiou.

After two Million Pound Game defeats in a row, Fev will be determined to make it third time lucky in 2022.

But what about Leigh? Promoted to Super League for 2021 after the demise of Toronto left a spare spot, they struggled badly, losing their opening 16 games.

But a narrow defeat to eventual play-off side Hull KR showed their capabilities, and they ended the campaign with two wins in their last six, over Salford and Wakefield.

Owner Derek Beaumont may divide the opinion of the fans, but he has helped put together quite the team for 2022, on and off the field.

Former Wakefield coach Chris Chester is the new head of rugby, and the club secured a huge coup in bringing in ex-Wigan boss Adrian Lam, who led the Warriors to the League Leaders’ Shield and Super League Grand Final less than 18 months ago.

And a new-look playing roster has caught the eye, with the acquisition of NRL trio Nene Macdonald, Caleb Aekins and Tom Amone added to Aaron Smith and Tom Nisbet coming in on season-long loans from St Helens.

It would be silly to discount last year’s third-placed side Halifax, 2021 underachievers Widnes and London, or even big-spending Newcastle.

But Bulls were able to beat Fax, Broncos and Newcastle last season, the latter twice, and only lost by a point in the penultimate league game at Widnes after conceding a brainless last-minute penalty.

And that could be the key if Bulls are serious about promotion.

They have to stay switched on, as a team who have shown themselves as capable of shedding a hatful of points in quick succession on their bad days.

A bit of luck in the halves wouldn’t go amiss either after last year’s selection issues in that position, though losing Lilley for crucial early season games due to a knee injury isn’t a great start.

In truth, if Fev and Leigh play at full capacity all season, it is hard to see beyond those two for promotion.

But a few injuries here, and a few sloppy performances there, and that opens the door for others.

And with a squad containing the likes of Lilley, Dec Patton, Kieran Gill, Ant Walker, Matty Dawson-Jones and more, why can’t it be Bulls who pull it off?