Sent to Coventry … again

It’s a measure of the distances you have to cover as a Rugby League fan in Betfred League 1 that a two-hour drive down the M1 almost feels like a short hop. I was only in Coventry the weekend before for the Rufus Wainwright gig at the Cathedral, so I thought I knew what to expect from this particular journey. But that was without reckoning for an accident on the motorway chucking a sizeable spanner in the works.

So, just about the time I was expecting to arrive at the Butts Park Arena, I was driving round Uttoxeter of all places following an ever more random set of redirections from my satnav which was desperately trying to get me to the ground on time.

Thankfully, I made it with about 15 minutes to spare and was able to pay my admission money, buy a match programme and park up inside the ground without even leaving my car. Impressive service!

Once inside, there was a lot of activity around the place. It was clear the hosts had made a lot of effort in advance of this game to promote the visit of the Bulls, the pre-match promotion dubbing it the Battle of the Beasts, and to make sure everyone who turned up would have a memorable visit.

I tip my hat to them and their passion for the game which burns as brightly as anywhere else in the Rugby League community.

The Bears are celebrating their 20th year of existence and although the club is not having the easiest time on the field in League 1, they live within their means which seems to be more than some of their arguably more illustrious rivals can boast.

Indeed, it’s an ongoing concern of mine that, for all the fun of watching a winning Bradford team currently topping the competition, the Bulls themselves are not over extending themselves financially (again) in an attempt to get promoted at the first attempt. Fingers crossed on that one.

It was another swelteringly hot day, so I was relieved to see the main stand was providing some decent shelter from the sun’s rays, meaning I didn’t have to lather up with sun cream before venturing out to watch the match. For a ginger like me, this is no small concern, let me tell you. I’d be interested to know what sunblock fellow ginger James Laithwaite uses when he has to get out on the pitch in these conditions without burning to a crisp. Must be good stuff.

Once the game got underway, there was some degree of frustration amongst the sizeable travelling army of Bulls fans that the points avalanche they seemed to be expecting was not materialising. In fact, Coventry opened the scoring themselves, and were putting in plenty of decent moves with the ball in hand, as well as taking advantage of the extra possession the Bulls kept gifting them with a series of handling errors.

I guess the ball must have been pretty hot, but the Bulls did look generally off the boil in the first half, which nevertheless ended 16-6 to the visitors.

It was a different story in the second half, with Bradford piling on a further 16 points in a red hot 8 minute burst straight after the kick off in which the Bears barely touched the ball at all.

If there’s anyone out there who doubts the level of entertainment you get at this level of Rugby League, have a look at the third try of the second half, eventually scored by Elliott Minchella but only after the ball had travelled from one end of the pitch to the other in one set, and passed through at least seven pairs of hands before a kick through on the final tackle. Sure, you can argue all day that against stronger opposition such a move would never happen, but sometimes, you should just allow yourself to sit back and enjoy what you’re watching. Just imagine that – going to a Rugby League match to enjoy yourself instead of finding fault in every aspect of it. Who knows, it may catch on one day!

By this stage, the game had been put out of reach, but Coventry weren’t throwing the towel in either in front of a fully deserved record crowd for the Bears at Butts Park. They got on the scoresheet again, but the Bulls intermittently kept showing their abilities and posting a steady series of points at the other end before the banks really burst in the final five minutes when they finished the half as they had started it with a dazzling quickfire consecutive three try burst.

I almost managed to catch one of them on camera, but Sam Hallas was too quick for me in the end…

The final scoreline of 62-12 to Bradford hardly does justice to the effort the Bears put into this game, and fittingly both sides were treated to a rousing reception in front of the main stand as they left the field.

Bradford will have to play better than this if they are going to fulfil their ultimate ambition of achieving promotion as League 1 Champions this season – stronger sides will be quicker to punish the kind of errors they served up aplenty particularly in the first half and also won’t run out of steam to allow amends to be made towards the end either.

But that’s for another day.

For now, thanks to Coventry Bears for putting on a great event and congratulations on achieving a new record attendance. As a firm supporter of Rugby League expansion, I’d love to see the Bears continue to develop and grow over the next 20 years and hope that whatever structure emerges from the current spat between Super League and the rest of the sport, there will always be a meaningful place in it for enthusiastic, hard-working pioneer clubs like this.

Match Report & Stats from Official Bradford Bulls website

Watch full match coverage via Proper Sports

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Raiders of the Lost Cause?

Bradford Bulls 124 v West Wales Raiders 0

This match, or shall we call it what it really was, an exhibition, took place a week after York City Knights had rewritten the record books by inflicting a 144-0 defeat on West Wales Raiders. The only matter of interest for anyone who attended was whether Bradford Bulls would set their stall out and aim to beat that record themselves.

There were incentives for Bradford in doing so, beyond records, with York being League 1 promotion rivals and having boosted their points difference to a position that prevented the Bulls, winners of last week’s ‘top of the table’ clash against Doncaster from actually going top of the table.

With the sun making a rare Odsal appearance and the temperature pushing into the mid-twenties Celsius, the heat might have been the only major obstacle in their way, though they kept the scoreboard ticking along in the first half, matching York’s record-setting pace by half-time with the scoreline at 60-0.

Any doubts that the players didn’t have the record in their minds could be set aside by the numerous glances they kept taking at the scoreboard themselves after each try-scoring foray over the West Wales line.

What can a coach possibly say to their players halfway through a match with a scoreline looking like that?

Aside from brief moments of West Wales possession, and even a couple of occasions when they troubled the Bulls in defence near their own line, this was purely one way traffic.

Kick-off. Try. Conversion. Restart. Repeat for 80 minutes.

The only time boos rang out from the home crowd they were in jest as Dane Chisholm missed a solitary conversion in an otherwise faultless display of goal kicking, including several landed from the sidelines.

Child-powered scoreboard at Odsal

In the end, some time-consuming fumbling at the start of each half cost the Bulls their chance of eclipsing York’s record, but they did become the first Bradford side to notch up a triple figure score at Odsal, which caused the children hauling the numbers up and down off the hooks on the manual scoreboard some consternation. They solved the puzzle of how to cope without a third hook by hoisting the number ‘1’ aloft themselves and holding it there for the duration.

Ten out of ten for problem-solving skills, but how this fits in with child labour laws I guess we’ll never know.

The West Wales Raiders players deserve some credit. It’s not their fault they are out of their depth. They were brave enough to pull on a shirt and go out on the field, knowing in advance there would be little reward for their efforts other than being on the receiving end of yet another drubbing. That takes courage. And they stuck to their task regardless, even managing to force a goal line drop out from the Bulls with just two minutes remaining in the game and the scoreboard already well into triple figures against them.

That they allowed themselves to be caught out by a short kick from under the posts by Bradford, who regathered the ball and went the length of the field to score another try just summed up the gulf between the two sides. For West Wales, it was always going to be that sort of afternoon, and there was some acknowledgement of that from the Bulls fans who gave each and every one of the Raiders players a rousing ovation as they trudged off the field at the final whistle.

The Bulls rewrote their own record books today – (if we set aside any argument that this club is the same one that set the old records, given the number of times it has been out of business and reformed over the years) – and if there is any consolation whatsoever to be taken from this latest shellacking for West Wales, it is that Bradford’s previous record score was set ten years previous against Toulouse, who are now sitting pretty near the top of a division above the Bulls and with realistic ambitions of achieving promotion to Super League.

As someone who has always believed that Rugby League should expand its boundaries, I hope West Wales Raiders will still be around in ten years time, and that somehow, they will have moved forward from the travails of their debut season of 2018.

However, I would also hope that in that time, those charged with the responsibility of running the sport in this country will have learned that days like this don’t benefit Rugby League and that if you want to encourage people to play and watch it in new areas, you cannot just give a club a place in the league and then leave it to sink or swim on its own.

We’re seeing in Bradford, a big city with a long and proud Rugby League history, that rebuilding a club from the bottom up takes time, effort and money and there is no guarantee of success at the end.

Expecting a new club in South Wales to be competitive from day one with no outside help is just wishful thinking. If defeats like this become the norm (unlike the aforementioned Toulouse for which theirs was an exception) how long before everyone keeping the club alive just decide it isn’t worth it and walk away?

Match Report & Stats from Official Bradford Bulls website

 

Kear We Go!

So where did all this optimism surrounding Bradford Bulls suddenly spring from?

After several years of steep decline, dropping like a stone from the upper echelons of Super League to the bargain basement of League 1 via  a couple of desperately unhappy seasons in the Championship and, dare I mention it, more than one stint in administration, Bulls fans have got used to expecting the worst.

Following the latest relegation at the end of 2017, uncertainty surrounded the club yet again, as no one really expected Australian coach Geoff Toovey to stick around, though the ‘will he, won’t he’ speculation still went on anyway, mirroring the situation that clouded the start of his tenure when visa issues meant he was unable to do the job he had been appointed to until halfway through the season, leaving the inexperienced but undoubtedly determined Leigh Beattie to deputise.

Eventually the Toovey saga was brought to a close, with the confirmation he would not be returning, so who would be taking up the reins this time? Who could not only do the job, but also be brave enough to want to do it, given the recent rocky past?

Step forward, to my astonishment and delight, John Kear.

Here was a man with a track record of success in the British game, not just in terms of winning trophies with Super League clubs, which he had done with both Sheffield Eagles and Hull FC, but more importantly given the Bulls’ predicament, getting the very best out of limited resources along and the ability to restore a bit of pride to a battered brand. And brands don’t come much more battered these days than Bradford Bulls.

In my view, he was always the right man for the Bulls job, since the forced departure of the heroic Mick Potter, but it’s probably for the best it’s taken until now for him to get it.

He gets to start with a clean slate, rather than having to deal with all the baggage that has hampered his luckless predecessors in the Odsal hot seat.

No pre-season period in administration. No points deductions to contend with. No off-field dramas threatening the club’s existence – or at least none we know about at time of writing. Bulls fans have learned not to take these things for granted!

I’m not a fan of pre-season games, but the magic dust sprinkled by John Kear’s arrival saw me turn out in all weathers to watch four of them this year, whereas last season it was often a struggle to drag myself out of the house to watch an actual league match. The times they are definitely a’changing.

Wins over Halifax and Sheffield, a loss to Toronto and a boxing match against Keighley (four red cards, two apiece, in a ‘friendly’!!) whet the appetitite for the ‘big one’, the opening League 1 game away at York City Knights.

The Knights are a proactive and ambitious club and wasted no opportunity to pump up the game to ensure it would be watched by a larger than average crowd. They had pulled in a club record attendance the previous season against Toronto Wolfpack, with no away support, so the prospect of a sizeable influx of Bulls fans saw them confident of eclipsing that record quite comfortably.

York are no mugs on the field either. They beat Toronto in that record-breaking game and only just missed out on promotion to the Championship themselves, so for all the pre-season predictions that the Bulls would stroll through League 1 (predictions based more on the club’s name and its past glories more than any incisive analysis of the respective strengths of their opponents in this league, in my view) we were not heading for an unchallenged early coronation.

And so it (almost) came to pass!

It took a last minute penalty goal from halfway by Joe Keyes to see the Bulls run out 22-20 winners in a contest that had just about everything you could want from an afternoon of Rugby League. Great tries, heroic defence, a lead that changed hands several times and a result that really did hang in the balance to the final moments. Not to forget the vocal set of passionate fans from both sides that turned Bootham Crescent into the scene of what felt like an early-season cup final and set a new club record attendance too for York City Knights, which the club richly deserved.

When the final hooter sounded, the noise from the Bulls contingent behind the sticks, which included me for good measure, went up to fever pitch.

If this is how good League 1 is going to be every week, then watching the Bulls rebuild from the bottom up could be more entertaining than perhaps anyone expected.

And as for the man himself, John Kear, the sight of him leaping out of the dugout and dancing with joy across the pitch to celebrate with his victorious team on a thrilling opening day victory against serious promotion rivals will have further cemented the affection which Bulls fans already hold him in after just a few weeks in charge of the club.

On this evidence, he feels it, just like we do, and after all the trials and tribulations the club and its fans have been through these past few years, that really means something.

Match Report & Stats from Official Bradford Bulls website

Watch the whole game on BullsTV