Deacon drop puts Bulls on the brink

The play-off system weights everything in favour of the sides who finish the regular season in first and second places, but the Bulls beat St Helens - the League leaders and so often their nemesis in big matches - on Friday night to set up a Grand Final against Leeds next Saturday.

It was, inevitably, a desperately close-run affair, the crucial breakthrough in a 23-18 victory coming through Paul Deacon's 70th-minute drop goal. "I was quite surprised how much time I had," Deacon said. "It had been such a tight match, but I had so much time I had to try it."

It was typical of the way the Bulls have been finishing matches during their compelling run in the latter stages of the season and suggests that they can break with the tradition that says that teams which take the long route to the Grand Final run out of steam against rested opponents on the big day.

"The statistics show that it's difficult, because no one has won it from third," said Deacon. "But we're definitely battle-hardened, so that might go in our favour." In fact, Bradford had two relatively straightforward victories over London and Hull in the previous rounds of the play-offs, but this was a very different matter.

Even without a clutch of key players, Saints threw everything at them. Leon Pryce, himself destined for St Helens next season, believed that it was the determination of departing players to finish on a high that got Bradford home.

"I've been with these guys for a long time," he said. "The important thing for players who have been together for so long is to finish in the right way. In the first half, I wasn't very happy with my performance, so I had to do everything in my power in the second to try to get us there."

It is all a far cry from the early stages of the season when Bradford looked eminently beatable and Deacon and Pryce were among those struggling for form.

"I was playing hooker," recalled Deacon. "Brian Noble asked me to do a job, but I didn't really enjoy it there. I think Ian Henderson deserves a big wrap for the way he's come into that role. He's got a great passing game, which I really appreciate as a half-back."

Deacon is conscious of history beckoning, but hardly seems over-awed. "We'll just treat it as another week in Super League - even though it's never been won in that way before."

It has hardly been just another week for Whitehaven and Castleford, one of whom will qualify for Super League by winning their National League One Grand Final today.

The Whitehaven coach, Steve McCormack, has called it "the £1 million match" because of the difference it will make to the winners, daunting though the prospect of facing Bradford or Leeds next season might be.