Bulls must be exceptional to unsettle Panthers

Bradford have to rely on youth in tough test against transformed Penrith
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The Independent Online

There is just the one similarity between the Penrith Panthers of 2004 and the side that came to Britain to contest the World Club Challenge 13 years ago; they share the same name.

The Panthers of 1991 came here on an ill-disguised end-of-season jolly. Their successors have their minds firmly focused on business and promise to give Bradford a torrid start to their season at the McAlpine Stadium tonight.

The Penrith story is a remarkable one. Two years ago, they were the worst team in Australia's National Rugby League, but then the former Gateshead and Hull chief executive Shane Richardson and his old mate and former Australian coach John Lang got hold of them. They cleared out all the disillusioned old pros who had become used to the idea of losing and rebuilt on the foundation of the productive junior leagues at the foot of the Blue Mountains.

The results have been swifter and more spectacular than even they would have predicted, with the Panthers leading the competition for most of last season and then beating the strongly fancied title-holders, Sydney Roosters, in the Grand Final.

"They've just got a lot of character," said Logan Swann, the new Bradford recruit whose New Zealand Warriors side were beaten by Penrith on their way to that Grand Final. "They've got a lot of attacking ability across the field, but the thing that really stands out is that they've always got willing bodies." As Richardson has pointed out to a less-than-convinced Bradford chairman, Chris Caisley, a transformation of Penrith proportions is only possible with the tight - and tightly policed - salary cap they have in Australia.

One of the consequences of this is that it is difficult to keep Grand Final-winning sides together, but the Panthers have lost just one of their winning players - the loose forward Scott Sattler. Apart from him and Ryan Girdler, sidelined through illness, their successful combination is intact and threatens to be a little too settled and cohesive for Bradford tonight.

The Bulls thoroughly deserved to win everything last season when they were clearly the best-equipped side in the country. It could be a little more difficult this year - starting at Huddersfield this evening.

To lose three key men - James Lowes, Mike Forshaw and Daniel Gartner - from their pack leaves a possible shortfall in experience and leadership. Certainly, much is being asked tonight of their replacements - the young hooker Aaron Smith, Swann and Lee Radford.

Radford is likely to have the extra responsibility of goalkicking in the absence of Paul Deacon, but the man with the hardest act to follow is Smith, with just a handful of first-team starts behind him.

Lowes has been so pivotal in Bradford's attacking play - and particularly in their options on the last tackle - that it would be amazing if there was not something of a hiatus. Karl Pratt and Leon Pryce are also being asked to step up and take on extra responsibility at half-back in place of Deacon and Robbie Paul. All in all, it looks a little too much to expect from a number of players, especially as they will be confronted, for once this year, by a side every bit as big and physical as they are.

Against that, the Bulls have the bonus of a fully fit Michael Withers as a potential match-winner. They have shown that they can handle this fixture, and the way they smashed the Newcastle Knights two years ago was one of their finest hours. It will take something even more exceptional to bring them victory tonight.

Peacock's men will be out to maintain an impressive record by British clubs in the inter-hemisphere duel, which was first contested in 1987 when Wigan beat Manly 8-2 in front of a 36,895 crowd at Central Park.

A year ago, St Helens lost 38-0 to Sydney Roosters but Australian clubs have won only three of the nine contests.