Bradford a league ahead

Dave Hadfield salutes the Super League champions, whose success was built on a bold strategy of strength in depth
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The Independent Online
Much has changed in rugby league since Bradford last won what was then the First Division championship in 1981.

The Bulls were still Bradford Northern and concepts like summer rugby, full-time professionalism and Super League were not even a twinkle in the eye of the game's administration.

And yet there has been a timeless quality, a sense of a continuity of values, in the way the club has ended its 16-year wait.

Someone who has watched Bradford for decades remarked the other week that, for all the superficial differences, there are some striking similarities between this team and their successful sides of the past.

It could, he argued, have been a squad put together by Peter Fox in the late 1970s and early '80s: big, hard-working, interchangeable forwards and strapping backs, who might lack star quality but who, in the eternal rugby league phrase of quiet approbation, "do a job".

The approach to the game has been updated - after all, we are playing to different rules and in different conditions now - but the only Bull who would not have slotted into an old-style Northern side is Robbie Paul, and injury has made him a marginal figure this season.

For all the re-marketing of the game in which Bradford have been the one unarguable success, there is much that would be familiar to anyone who has been away from the club for a decade and a half.

The Bulls' triumph has been built on hard work for each other, on a spirit of "us against the world" and on keeping the game simple.

As they showed at the Don Valley Stadium on Saturday, where they beat Sheffield Eagles 32-12, Bradford do not always flow. But, even below their best, they wear other sides down with their close support play and their power and relentlessness around the rucks.

It is a style of play that has its limitations, as illustrated by the World Club Championship, but Sheffield, as all other British sides have done, finally succumbed, although the game was in its last 10 minutes before they did so.

The Bulls have had outstanding players this season - James Lowes and Graeme Bradley were the two that their coach, Matthew Elliott, named after the title was clinched - but they have won it as much through quantity as quality. Unlike other clubs in less bullish mood, they have been prepared to run a squad big enough to cover for most eventualities of form and fitness.

As Paul Loughlin, celebrating a winner's medal to go with his remarkable collection as a runner-up, put it: "If you have a bad game, there's someone else, as good or better, who can come in."

Players at other clubs are not under the same pressure -and it shows. It was significant that the last try on Saturday should be scored by Mike Forshaw, whose signing in mid-season Elliott identified as a turning point. It is not that Forshaw is a world-beating player; the point is that Bradford were willing to go out and sign another first-team forward at a time when they found themselves a little stretched.

More than Paul, Lowes and Bradley, it was, as the Sun might say, the numbers wot won it. The question now is whether the collective hunger is there to go the extra mile and finish the league season unbeaten. The will is there and so is the man- power.

Sheffield Eagles: Sovatabua; Pinkney, Morganson, Taewa, Crowther; Mycoe, Aston; Broadbent, Vassilakopoulos, Thompson, Senior, McAllister, Doyle. Substitutes used: Wright, Erba, Laughton, Garcia.

Bradford Bulls: Spruce; Ekoku, Peacock, Loughlin, Scales; Bradley, Paul; McDermott, Lowes, Wittenberg, Nickle, Donougher, McNamara. Substitutes used: Reihana, Forshaw, Dwyer, Tomlinson.

Referee: S Ganson (St Helens).

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