Brutal battle is the envy of Australians

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The Independent Online
Rugby League

Bradford 24 Leeds 10

The complaint of those watching the early weeks of Super League in Australia is that matches there are unduly mild-mannered and woefully lacking in the traditional ingredients of blood, gore and guts.

The good news for those who like their rugby league red raw and rough as old boots is that there is no sign of the same happening to encounters between Super League clubs here, at least not when they are old rivals and neighbours with Wembley on their minds.

The Silk Cut Challenge Cup semi-final that saw the Bradford Bulls qualify for a return to Wembley in May, after last year's defeat by St Helens, was, unlike that final, not a match you would want to put in a glass case and admire.

It was bitter and brutal, full of that snarling mongrel quality the absence of which Australians are bemoaning. Near the end, when the ground announcer at the McAlpine Stadium in Huddersfield urged fans not to go on to the pitch at the final hooter, the only rational response was: "No fear. Not with those head-cases out there."

Bradford won because they were by far the better rugby side, but, unlike last year's equivalent semi-final, Leeds made a fight of it - sometimes literally.

The Bradford coach, Matthew Elliott, reeled off a list of head and face injuries his players were nursing after the game and said that there had been times when they had been "in great danger".

By a bizarre inversion of logic, he exonerated Leeds from all blame. "There is a professional out there who is meant to ensure that if things like that happen, they don't happen again," he said, accepting that his comments were likely to bring him into collision with the League's by- laws about criticising referees.

Perhaps the field would have been a safer place if Russell Smith had taken a sterner attitude to some early transgressions. But, as the director of referees, Greg McCallum, said after the match, players and coaches carry a responsibility for the tone of proceedings. Unless he disguised it very well, Mr Smith did not thump anyone.

Nor were Bradford angels, as witnessed by Sonny Nickle's series of haymakers aimed at Phil Hassan. Both were sin-binned - Hassan, presumably, for his provocative role as a punchbag. The Bulls also had the only man sent off, their outstanding prop and former heavyweight boxer Brian McDermott, for laying into any Leeds player within range. Elliott made the point that, unlike some previous incidents, no one had been "at risk" from McDermott's flurry. It was still an unfortunate end to a fine display by one of Bradford's best players.

Another major influence was Paul Medley, whose impact after coming on as an early substitute - after Ian Pickavance's contribution for St Helens at Wigan - was a reminder how many matches are won off the bench in this era of 17-man rugby.

Abrasive and acrimonious as it was, this was a match from which, ultimately, both sides got what they wanted. Bradford go back to Wembley, where they will be even better equipped than last year to tackle the Saints, while Leeds came away with their pride intact. They had made a battle of it - and both sides had the bruises to prove it.

Bradford: Spruce; Scales, Peacock, Loughlin, Cook; Bradley, Paul; Brian McDermott, Lowes, Reihana, Nickle, Dwyer, McNamara. Substitutes used: Tomlinson, Calland, Medley, Jowitt.

Leeds: Gibson; Sterling, Blackmore, Cummins, Hassan; Kemp, Holroyd; Masella, Collins, Mathiou, Morley, Farrell, Mercer. Substitutes used: Rivett, Sheridan, Newton, Barrie McDermott.

Referee: R Smith (Castleford).

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