A time for reflection: Ten of the more memorable moments in the Bradford Bulls' history

It’s a very sorry state of affairs at Odsal; one which no sports fan would wish upon any club. Whilst there is still hope for one of the greatest clubs in the Super League era, those hopes could end on deadline day tomorrow. Therefore, now seems the appropriate time to ask, which have been the biggest moments of the Bradford Bulls? Here are our top ten.

1. There have been many top class players to play for the Bulls in this era. However amongst the likes of Fielden, Peacock and Pryce, Robbie Paul still managed to stand out. His class is epitomised by his hat-trick in the Challenge Cup Final defeat of 1996. Despite being on the losing team, Paul picked up the Lance Todd trophy, just one of many memorable performances that singles him out as one of Bradford’s greatest players.

2. How about the Bulls’ first Super League victory? The Bulls were good in the inaugural year; however they were unstoppable in the second season in 1997 as they won their first title, losing just two games in the process.

3. The Bulls continued to become more and more successful over the coming years, including their first Challenge cup win in 52 years coming in 2000. This was made even sweeter by the fact the final was against local rivals and cup holders Leeds Rhinos, beating them 24-18 in the first game held outside Wembley at Murrayfield.

4. However, that same year saw heartbreak for the Bulls. The “Wide to West” try, as it is fondly remembered, is often considered to be the greatest try in the history of Super League, especially given the occasion as it saw Saints score in the final play of the match in order to take the lead over Bradford and reach the Grand Final. Bulls coach Matthew Elliott’s reaction rather sums it up.

5. 2002 began well as they were crowned World Club Champions, but it wasn’t such a happy end for the Bulls as a Sean Long drop goal denied them another Super League title. More heartbreak for the Bulls… however it only made them stronger for the 2003 season.

6. The tre-bull: It is literally impossible to pick out a single highlight from the 2003 season for the Bulls, as there were just too many to count. The season saw them beat local rivals Leeds five times including a 48-16 drubbing as well as some incredibly tight matches which they won 18-16 and 22-21 and most importantly of all the 22-20 Challenge Cup final victory. They also won every competition they competed in. Equalled only by St Helens in 2006, 2003 will always be remembered as the Year of the Bull.

7. Comeback kings? It all started so badly for Bradford in 2005 as they sunk to eleventh place in the Super League after a miserable run of form. However, an end of season revival saw the Bulls win 12 on the bounce and eventually crowned as Super League champions for, as it stands, their last trophy in a sweet act of revenge over their victors at Old Trafford the year before, the Leeds Rhinos.

8. It isn’t possible to mention the greatest moments of the Bulls without reference to possibly the greatest try scorer in the Bulls history: Lesley Vainikolo. In 2004 he broke the record for number of tries in a season with an incredible 34 tries in 23 appearances. The following year “the volcano” managed another record as he scored six tries in a single match against the hapless Hull FC. He finished at the Bulls with 149 tries in 152 games making him one of the most prolific try scorers of the summer era.

9. Where would Rugby League be without a bit of controversy? Whilst their derby match at the inaugural Millenium Magic may not have been the most important game in the history of the sport, it is still something that will stand out long in the memory. Jordan Tansey’s try from an offside position is one of very few refereeing mistakes where an official has actually had to publically apologise which shows just how shocking this error was to gift the game to the Rhinos. Painful? Certainly. But memorable all the same.

10. There wouldn’t be such an article if it wasn’t for the Bulls financial turmoil this season, so it has to be mentioned. However as long as things work out in the coming weeks, it hasn’t been all bad. Firstly, the fans response has been incredible, highlighted by their efforts to raise the initial £500,000 to save the club. Secondly the reaction of the players and staff has been of the highest standard as well with Mick Potter’s coaching team swallowing their pride to continue leading them as well as some great performances from the players which, if they continue, leaves them in good stead for reaching the playoffs for the first time since 2008.

We can only wish them luck in continuing to survive however, on reflection, it is clear that Super League would not be the same without Bradford Bulls.

Exiles Success?

The introduction of the England vs. The Exiles match last season seemed an exciting prospect to many. So after this year’s series it’s time to ask, has it worked?

The main idea of this was to provide England with a much tougher opposition for the mid-season international than France. In that sense this has been a great success. Last year’s match was won with a try in the dying seconds and this year’s saw a tie in the series. Evidently, at the moment, the two sides seem to be on an even keel so big thumbs up to the RFL for coming up with an idea which could well help to develop the English international scene.

However, whilst it is good that they now have a fixture worth fulfilling, is the fact it is so close not actually worrying? Only Thomas Leuleuai out of the last two squads actually turns out for his country, yet our full squad minus just a handful struggled or failed to beat this team. It does not seem to be a case of a lack of ambition that our main international aim is to beat this team of NRL rejects, but simply the fact that Australia and New Zealand are of a completely different class. The idea is a novelty rather than a rivalry that compares to the Australian State of Origin and this shines through with a lack of passion. This just goes to show just how much of a joke international rugby league is, and whilst it is obvious to everyone that this is the most beneficial mid-season match available, given the fact that the Roses matches never built up an England squad, we can not get carried away by our moderate success against The Exiles.

For the RFL though, this is more than just for the benefit of the England squad. This concept is completely unique in sport with the closest thing being the rugby union Barbarians team, therefore the commercial success is also vital to the showcasing of rugby league. I have already mentioned the lack of rivalry which makes it no more than a glorified training session. There is nothing for the fans to believe in as some of their club heroes are playing for the supposed enemy who we are also encouraged to support to an extent. What’s more, if you take into account the booing of Sam Tomkins at the inaugural outing, it is possible to see how this game holds little meaning and will therefore struggle in selling the sport to outsiders. Perhaps it may be a slightly unfair comparison given how established the Australian version is, but round two of State of Origin was seen by 83,110 as well as by millions of television viewers across the globe. In contrast, an aggregate of 18,948 saw the English version which was broadcast in just this country. Commercial success? I think not.

So, what can be done? The future of our dismal international game does seem to rather rely on this fixture to aid development, so it must be made to work properly at least. Perhaps the only way to increase the rivalry is to give it time. As people get more used to the concept the Exiles will appear more and more to be the enemy although this could be helped by the RFL not showing them in the same light as our beloved national team, in turn, fans dislike will only provide encouragement for the players to turn this into a heated series, dare I say it, in line with the State of Origin. Assuming the playing side of things will come; the other issue is the commercial value. Whilst it is obvious that the Galpharm is one of few stadiums in rugby league fit to stage an international, it’s no use it being three-quarters empty. I recently read a fan’s view questioning the selection of locations and promoting the use of an equally good KC stadium citing the fact that the fans of both Hull sides, a city where the passion for rugby league and rivalry is clear to see, would easily fill it. Given how Huddersfield are hardly known for their record attendances this certainly seems logical. The final issue is that it was such a washout in the end. A one-all series draw because it was only played as a two match series is a serious dampener on the matter. Add in the fact that selection was limited due to club duties and perhaps club performance seems a better priority and the final game became utterly disappointing.

The verdict: This is a great concept; however it remains only a concept in its current form. In order to grow, it would seem far more logical, particularly given calls for a smaller Super League and the lack of international programme this year, to play a three match series at the end of the season in stadiums which can attract decent crowds in Lancashire, West Yorkshire and Humberside, which gives far better preparation time. It is frustrating seeing such a brilliant idea being mishandled in such a way, particularly given the global success of its Australian counterpart, therefore we can only hope that the RFL learn to make the most of it, as for once they have actually come up with a good idea.

What Does it Take for Change to Happen?

Two things have caught the eye in recent weeks about Rugby League; neither of them positive. Firstly the shambolic state of the licensing system which has been highlighted not only by the catastrophe at Odsal, but the results in the Challenge Cup. Secondly the inconsistency within the disciplinary system is yet another kick in the teeth for our potentially great sport. Therefore the real question is why the RFL continues to be the laughing stock of the game, yet is allowed to continue to make a mess of their affairs just as the board at Bradford has.

“The aim is to achieve consistency and continuity by giving clubs the chance to make long-term decisions in an effort to raise standards of the game in this country. The criteria for licences will be based on stadium facilities, finance and business performance, commercial and marketing and playing strength, including junior production and development.”

These words were the main points made by the RFL in the unveiling of the license system back in 2008 and as usual, most fans foolishly believed in them. Only twice since the introduction of this system have we seen a non-Super League side beat the elite. Whilst this does in fact show the system to have improved the quality of Super League teams, indeed within the league various teams have improved dramatically as a result of this security, it has greatly damaged those clubs outside Super League who now only have a need to achieve any set targets in the year franchises are given out (although there seems little point in trying given the survival of Wakefield last year.)

The proof of the damage done to lesser teams comes in the form of 2012’s addition to Super League; the Widnes Vikings. By giving them three years to improve, there is a strong their so-far dreadful record may well be resolved, but then, if all 14 teams meet the criteria to a better level than the best Championship side there is no opportunity of those outside the elite progressing. What’s more, it is clear from some of the pastings Widnes have taken just how big the gap now is between the top and the bottom sides, in particular as 19 of last season’s squad were released after being considered inadequate for Super League. Evidently, while the franchise system benefits teams while they are in Super League, for the majority – the teams outside of Super League, there are no obvious pluses.

For the second point, read closely the section where finances are mentioned. From what I can work out this means a strong financial setup is required, not a business model such as Bradford’s, which is now on the brink of destruction. As much as I, like any true rugby fan, do not want to see the Bulls fall, there has to be some questions as to how on earth this went through what you would hope is a highly thorough process. The sale of their stadium shows there to have been some signs of this before it all blew up, particularly with the Iestyn Harris saga which cost them a cool couple of million; something that must have been blatantly ignored. There have been suggestions that the governing body should take more control, however this is disputable, as just like any other business, they should be able to look after their own affairs.

Evidently, these questions should be addressed in the future, but the main focus right now should be saving the Bulls. As far as the RFL is concerned though, there should be some serious questioning regarding the awarding of a new licence to Bradford, who have reached this stage within ten games of the new season, and to a lesser extent, Wakefield given their fall into administration during the last set of franchises. Such issues bring the game into disrepute and people are now starting to question whether the the licensing system should be either scrapped or actually properly applied without any lenience. Bare in mind Bradford were awarded a grade B licence after being described as having a “good operating structure/governance in place”.

To move onto the other matter in question, it seems disciplinary issues are yet another matter that are not dealt with properly, regardless of the opinions of more highly regarded, yet perhaps more moronic writers, such as Phil Clarke. Recently, Ryan Bailey was banned for three matches simply for pushing an official out of his way. Whether this action was necessary or not is irrelevant, however this was a measly offence which has been treated ridiculously harshly. Obviously the officials demand a certain degree of respect and have an incredibly difficult job to do, yet this just seems incomprehensible. It is far from the first time Super League players and coaches have received astonishingly strong punishments for their criticism of referees, namely Richard Agar and Keith Senior. This matter of RFL officials being literally untouchable has gone too far.

Although some would point to the ban received by Thierry Alibert as contradictory to this, as far as I’m concerned, it simply rubs salt into the wound. He was dropped for just one game for allowing tries on the seventh tackle, of which, the first time was a game winning moment. What’s more, the fact this wasn’t revealed until after the game, and presumably because some on-the-ball fans had noticed his absence, adds to the absurdity of this. It is highly debatable as to whether this is a far lesser offence than a small shove which caused no harm to the person involved. The RFL can defend referees for being unable to be spot on every time, however the same can be said for players, although Bailey’s disciplinary record is hardly desirable. Surely they should therefore be judged to at least similar standards, particularly as this is from the first dreadful mistake made by Thierry Alibert, let alone referees.

However the double standards don’t just exist for our referees, as shown by comparing Bailey’s ‘offence’ to that of Heath L’Estrange and Rangi Chase in recent weeks. L’Estrange’s horror spear tackle is best summed up by his victim Jamie Peacock’s twitter rant: “I just want to get this into perspective…Bails (Ryan Bailey) gets 3 match’s for pushing a ref so he can make a tackle, I nearly break my neck and a 2 match ban is adequate..” Anyone playing the sport will have seen their fair share of bad challenges, but most people recognise that the spear tackle is by far the most dangerous. I do not believe for one second any damage was intended on L’Estrange’s part, but the potentially serious nature of this challenge deserves a hefty punishment, certainly more than one received for a minor push. Although these things can be overlooked during the run of play, referees seem unwilling to punish even the most cynical offences on the pitch these days, or in this case, just send off the wrong man.

As the saying goes ‘once is an accident, twice is just careless.’ To see Rangi Chase receive the same length of ban as Bailey for breaking an opponent’s jaw (a crime which would see him go to jail if it wasn’t on the rugby pitch) was therefore rather astounding. The RFL are always going to protect their own which at least makes Bailey’s ban explainable, however Chase’s ban is little more than an inconvenience – apart from the fact Cas have few other players capable of doing anything with the ball. While Phil Clarke keeps his blinkers on and believes everything is rosy in the sport largely funded by his employers, this does not seem the case, as inconsistency appears rife in the very core of the game.

Nothing is ever perfect in life and to some extent this fact has to be accepted in Rugby League, yet this doesn’t make these bitter pills any easier to swallow; just ask any Bradford fan who had to shell out by pledging. However the RFL seems about as willing to resolve such matters as Steve Menzies is to retire, therefore we can only hope with a new CEO, the RFL may perhaps take a good hard look at itself. Or is that too much to hope for?