I commented in my last blog that the last six weeks of the regular season would be interesting, particularly with league leaders and eventual champions, Leigh Centurions, visiting the provident Stadium.
So it proved to be, although not quite as I expected……
The best and the worst…
That’s what we saw of Bulls through the course of the last seven Championship games.
I mentioned last time that Head Coach Jimmy Lowes had described his team’s performance against Dewsbury Rams as “rubbish” and that wouldn’t be the last time he would do so.
Let’s start with the positives, though. Top four and a place in the Super 8s was secured with successive wins at the end of June, 38-16 away to Workington Town and 34-16 at home to Batley Bulldogs, who ran Bulls close in the reverse fixture back in March.
Batley put in another stirring display but in the end Bulls took their 17th straight league win on a day the Club marked armed forces day with a pre match tribute and the players wearing a special charity shirt, replicas of which were sold to fans in support of the Royal British Legion.
The unbeaten run ended three days later, though.
An under-strength, part-time Featherstone team came to the Provident Stadium and produced what I think is the best performance of any visiting team this year taking a 22-6 half time lead and extending this with an early second half try. ‘Fev’ took advantage of Bulls’ “shoddy” defending and poor attacking play. There was no way back and the 18-37 result left Leigh as firm favourites to secure top spot.
Jake Mullaney missing
Jake Mullaney was missing against Featherstone due to injury but returned at South Leeds Stadium, playing at half-back in the absence of Lee Gaskell. Mullaney was superb in tearing apart Hunslet with a near perfect man of the match display and four tries. Danny Williams added to the 68-6 rout with a hat-trick of his own.
Then came games against the three teams who will join Bulls in Super 8s alongside Super League opposition.
None of those games produced a win, with Lowes throwing out the ‘R’ word again after a 32-30 defeat to Sheffield Eagles at the Keepmoat Stadium.
Leigh had effectively secured top spot earlier so maybe some complacency set in but I’m certainly not alone in believing momentum is a great thing going into the business end of the season so the second half fight-back after being 22-6 down got me all excited! Sadly, another standout showing and hat trick from Mullaney couldn’t quite edge the Eagles with time running out.
Clash of the heavyweights
Then came the ‘biggy’! The game that everyone hoped would be a pulsating, hard fought top of the table clash with the league lead at stake.
The latter wasn’t the case with league positions all set, but it was a certainly highly entertaining game at the Provident Stadium with a frantic ending that had fans from both sides of the Championship’s biggest crowd of the season on tenterhooks!
Leigh didn’t perform to their usual standard but Bulls were missing three key attacking players – Gaskell, Mullaney, and Harry Siejka – which made their performance all the more impressive and gives the Bulls’ supporters much optimism for the Super 8s.
New signing Omari Caro, Super League’s fastest man in 2012, ran in three tries from the wing on his home debut. The two Adams, Sidlow and O’Brien, were superb and but for a crazy pass by Danny Addy close to the Leigh goal line which was intercepted and returned for a late lead-taking score, Bulls should have gone on to win.
In the end, Caro ensured the first draw of the season for both sides, 36-36 , with Ryan Shaw missing the conversion that would have given the home team bragging rights.
Over 9,000 people were left anticipating what the Super 8s encounter between these two teams will deliver, not to mention the possibility of a Million Pound Game between them.
The last outing of the ‘regular’ season was away to an in-form Halifax who had won eight in a row.
6 key Bulls players missing
Bulls were even more under-strength than they were against Leigh with six key players missing from the team sheet. By this stage, with any momentum having being killed, this was probably not a bad idea, avoiding an unnecessary risk of injuries in preparation for the next seven crucial games.
Another new recruit, James Clare, has been brought in to add strength on the wing and he debuted at The Shay. He couldn’t help Bulls avoid a 20-16 defeat, though. Halifax had taken a 14-0 lead into the break and Bulls once again stormed back in the second half with Caro grabbing his fourth score in two games, the red, amber and black taking a 16-14 lead. But a penalty and a 76th minute winner meant Lowes’ men ended the league campaign on a losing note.
Now it’s time to shine
The recent additions of Clare, Caro and former Wakefield second-rower Matt Ryan show that Chairman Marc Green and his board mean business going into the Super 8s and the introduction of Aussie centre Dane ‘Danger’ Nielsen from the NRL until the end of the season gives Lowes’ team a vastly experienced ex-Grand Finalist, although he won’t start a game until their first test against Super League opposition away to Wakefield Trinity Wildcats, live on Sky Sports on 15th August.
The fixture schedule for the play offs has thrown up some tasty looking games at the Provident Stadium and on the road
A Lee Gaskell hat trick in their opening Super 8s fixture against Sheffield Eagles helped power Bulls to a comfortable 42-10 win and will give them much confidence going into their remaining games.
The return of Adrian Purtell, Dale Ferguson, Danny Williams and the talismatic Gaskell, plus the debut of Matt Ryan meant Bulls were at their strongest for some time and it showed in a first half in which Williams got an early brace and Jimmy Lowes’ men never looked back.
Sheffield had beaten Bulls only four weeks earlier but they couldn’t cope with the strengthened team which clearly had renewed vigour and will only get better with Gaskell gaining match fitness and Nielson adding even more quality and fire.
Upcoming home games against Super League’s Salford Red Devils and my favourite to finish top of the mini league, Widnes Vikings, will be huge challenges. However, other round one results suggested Super League teams will not have it all their way.
Much fancied Widnes could only beat Halifax 14-0 with two of the tries coming in the last three minutes, so I think there is much to be optimistic about.
Watch this space for updates…..
Provident continues ‘Supporting Bulls Supporters’
More fantastic competitions, match day fun and giveaways continue to be the theme of our ‘Supporting Bulls Supporters’ activities.
Ten lucky Bulls fans will be ‘wined and dined’ in Provident’s executive box at the Salford match after winning a competition at https://www.facebook.com/supporting bulls.
Our t-shirt guns have proved to be popular with over 300 t-shirts being grabbed by fans at various matches and photo frames at the Sheffield game were a big hit with lots of pics uploaded to our Facebook page.