A young Wigan side denied Bradford any compensation for a disappointing season by winning the Carnegie Floodlit Nines at Headingley with a 20-16 victory in the final last night.
The Bulls looked like getting their reward for taking the event, and its £10,000 prize-money, seriously, fielding a squad almost entirely composed of players with considerable Super League experience. After taking an early lead through Vinny Finigan, however, they were hit by tries from Ryan King and two from the Sale-bound Ian Thorniley. Man of the tournament Shaun Ainscough's fifth try of the night made it safe, although the Bulls had time to hit back through Michael Platt and Jason Crooks.
Bradford were extended by a similarly experienced Wakefield side in the semi-finals, clawing back a draw through Heath L'Estrange at the end of normal time, then winning it through Rikki Sheriffe in the first minute of golden point extra time.
Wigan reached the final at the expense of Warrington, led by Chris Bridge, making his comeback from shoulder surgery just a little too late to stake his claim for a Wembley place. The Wolves led virtually throughout, but were pipped 16-12 at the post by a close-range try from John Walker from a tapped penalty.
Wakefield qualified for the semi-finals by beating Leeds, 18-12, despite Kallum Watkins making a try-scoring return for the Rhinos after six months out following major knee surgery. There was some consolation for Leeds in their teenaged wing prospect, Jamel Chisholm, winning the sprint challenge to be crowned the fastest man in rugby league for the second year running.
The highlight of the group rounds was the 22-12 defeat of the reigning champions, Hull, by the Jamaican national side, a combination of British-based players and others from their domestic competition who are embarking on an English tour.
The holders were then eliminated by Wigan, who beat them 16-14, with the Bradford-bound wingman Ainscough scoring two spectacular tries to add to the one he recorded against Jamaica.
Like Jamaica, the Welsh and Scots representative sides also bowed out in the group stages. Their participation, however, showed the value of Nines as a development vehicle, while the healthy crowd at Headingley suggested that the tournament, in its third year, has become a valuable part of the build-up to Wembley.