The might of the Bulls wore down Wigan in the Super League Grand Final at a packed Old Trafford last night, as Bradford became the first club to win the trophy and the Challenge Cup in the same season.
The outsiders played all the early rugby, placing particular demands on Bradford's man of the match, Stuart Reardon, at full-back. As the game wore on, however, the Bulls' extra power ground away at brave and enterprising opponents, with results that looked inevitable long before the final hooter. Any doubts about their victory were removed by a try five minutes from time from their hooker, James Lowes, one of three members of their pack playing his last game for the club.
Bradford drew strength from the emotion of those farewells to outlast a Wigan team which experienced defeat for the first time under the inspirational coaching of Mike Gregory. Unlike the meeting of the same sides two years ago, they were far from humiliated on Super League's biggest night so far.
"In the first half, we weren't at the races," admitted the Bradford coach, Brian Noble, who remembered all too vividly last year's agonising defeat by St Helens. "I thought 'oh no, here we go again'."
That was a realistic fear after the way Wigan had begun. Throwing the ball around with enterprise, they looked capable of stretching and snapping the Bradford defence. Crucially, they could only score one try, a top class tackle from Reardon, keeping out David Hodgson before Wigan finally broke through.
Terry Newton, who had been opening up play effectively with long passes from dummy-half, began the attack and Sean O'Loughlin sent Danny Tickle through some weak tackling from Paul Deacon and Shontayne Hape.
Andy Farrell, who had hit the post with an earlier penalty, kicked the more difficult conversion, but Bradford, with Robbie Paul coming off the bench after a six-month absence, gradually got into their stride, with two penalties from Deacon whittling down the lead before half time, even though Lesley Vainikolo had a try disallowed for a marginal knock-on.
There was an air of inevitability about the way the Bulls drew level through Deacon's third goal. When Wigan had Brian Carney carried off suffering from concussion after a tackle from Leon Pryce, Bradford took the lead they had threatened. Reardon took Joe Vagana's pass and wove his way through a tiring defence.
Bradford were on a roll now and, seven minutes later, another of their substitutes, Pryce, moved the ball to Deacon who sent Hape through a gap.
Deacon's conversion and drop goal put Bradford in a commanding position, but Wigan were not finished. Martin Aspinwall made a dashing break and Kris Radlinski was there in support, as ever, with a try that briefly hinted at a late miracle. But Tickle knocked on straight from the kick-off and Bradford turned the screw once more with Lowes, retiring after being such an important part of their success, burrowing over from close range for his 99th try for the club.
"He's been an outstanding footballer and an outstanding competitor," said Noble. "And for those of us who know him, he's a great bloke; moody and weird, but a great bloke."
Paul and Lowes lifted the trophy together as Bradford celebrated the high water mark of all they have achieved in Super League. "It's the culmination of everything we've worked for since the start of the Bradford Bulls in 1995," Paul said.
Bradford now face some extensive rebuilding, but with players like Reardon, who will be part of the England A squad for this season's internationals coming through, the future remains bright.
Gregory, despite his disappointment, believes that the same holds true for his team. "We can go a long, long way," he said. Not quite far enough on the night, however, to shake off the Bulls - the most consistent side all season and appropriate winners in front of the Grand Final's first ever sell-out crowd.
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).Reuse content