Final triumph gives Bradford good base to rebuild for future

Bradford 25 Wigan 12
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The Independent Online

When Bradford rebuild for next season, they will do so from a position of unprecedented strength. The Bulls completed what is unarguably the most successful season by any side in the summer rugby era by winning the Super League Grand Final here on Saturday night, as well as the Challenge Cup in April.

No other club has a achieved that and, even though they will have some vacancies to fill for 2004, they have firmly established themselves, after plenty of previous disappointments, as the team to beat in Super League.

James Lowes signed off with a late, clinching try. Mike Forshaw and Danny Gartner gave typically industrious performances alongside him and two others who did not make the team, Lee Gilmour and Scott Naylor, are also leaving.

Non of them will be easy to replace, but the new players who come in will be joining forces with a club that knows exactly what it does best.

Rugby league romantics might have preferred it to be Wigan's expansive early play that won the day on Super League's biggest occasion so far, played in front of a capacity crowd at the Theatre of Dreams.

In reality, it was always Bradford's power that gave them the edge, once they had weathered Wigan's early flourish without conceding too many points.

Wigan's inroads were limited to Danny Tickle's try and, once Bradford got back on the rails, that was never going to be a strong enough buffer.

"They were too big for us and too strong. They won the collisions," admitted the Wigan coach, Mike Gregory, tasting defeat in the role for the first time.

That sheer power, typified by players like Stuart Fielden and Jamie Peacock, was crucial, but there were other elements as well. One was the introduction from the bench of Robbie Paul for his first match for six months since breaking an arm. He provided some extra pace and variety from dummy half, in what could be a dress rehearsal for taking over from Lowes at hooker.

Then there was Leon Pryce, who faces a year-old assault charge in court this week, and who announced his arrival by concussing Brian Carney in a tackle of debatable legality, but then had a hand in the two tries that set up the Bulls' victory.

Most of all, there was a towering performance from Stuart Reardon. He was third choice full-back at the start of the season and had been loaned out to Salford - two miles but a world away from Old Trafford - last year.

The injuries to Paul and Michael Withers gave him his opportunity in Bradford's first team and, even when both were fit, the Bradford coach, Brian Noble, kept faith with him.

That was richly rewarded at Old Trafford, where Reardon defended superbly when Wigan were on top and then scored the try that pointed the Bulls towards the winning post.

"It's a bit different from playing at Salford, but they gave me the chance to show that I could play," Reardon said - and he showed it again on Saturday night.

It was not quite the classic, full of the late drama that has characterised so many matches this season, but it was an occasion that marked the coming of age for Super League.

The Grand Final format, so controversial when it was introduced in 1998, has surely been vindicated when there are 65,500 inside Old Trafford and many more who would have like to have been.

It was a match with a series of implications for Great Britain's series against Australia, who were surprisingly beaten by New Zealand in Auckland on Saturday.

The Wigan and Great Britain captain, Andy Farrell, got through the match on his suspect knee and will fly out for warm weather training in Spain with the rest of the squad hoping that he can get it right for the Ashes.

Carney, despite being stretchered off, was insistent that he will be available, even though he admitted that he could not remember anything afterwards.

Bradford Tries: Reardon, Hape, Lowes. Goals: Deacon 6. Drop Goal: Deacon. Wigan Tries: Tickle, Radlinski. Goals: Farrell 2.

Bradford: Reardon; Vaikona, Withers, Hape, Vainikolo; Pratt, Deacon; Vagana, Lowes, Fielden, Gartner, Peacock, Forshaw. Substitutes used: Paul, Pryde, Radford, Anderson.

Wigan: Radlinski; Carney, Aspinwall, Hodgson, Dallas; O'Loughlin, Robinson; C Smith, Newton, Pongia, Cassidy, Tickle, Farrell. Substitutes used: O'Connor, Hock, Johnson, M Smith.

Referee: K Kirkpatrick (Warrington).

Attendance: 65,537.