Rugby League: A Wembley PS for Elliott

Dave Hadfield speaks to the Bulls coach ready for another Saints battle
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The Independent Online
THIS HAS been by far the trickiest week in the career of Matthew Elliott. The Bradford Bulls coach has experienced defeat in major finals in Australia; the difference in Britain is that he has to pick up himself and his team in order to maintain their pursuit of another prize eight days later.

Bradford meet St Helens, their conquerors in the last two Wembley finals, at Odsal tonight, in an immediate return fixture in the Super League that is a searching test of their powers of recovery.

Grand Finals in Australia fall at the absolute end of the season; win or lose, that is the finish of it. "You can take a week off to walk around and kick stones," is how Elliott puts it. There has been no such luxury for him this time. The Bulls were back in training on Monday, with Elliott's first task being to assess the damage - both physical and psychological - left by their Challenge Cup defeat last Saturday.

The physical side is easier to evaluate. Bradford will be without Robbie Paul, with his foot injury, and Sonny Nickle, who has re-fractured his arm, for up to six weeks. Between the forwards who were on the bench at Wembley - Simon Knox and Paul Medley - and those who were signed too late to be involved - Paul Anderson, Jeff Wittenberg and Mike Forshaw - Elliott has options that he can shuffle around to cover adequately for the absence of Nickle.

The loss of Paul is more fundamental. He has a good scrum-half in Glen Tomlinson, who should possibly have started at Wembley in any case, but Saints - and all the Bulls' forthcoming opponents - will be hugely relieved not to have to face the unpredictable attacking ingenuity of Paul.

It is more difficult to quantify the harm that has been done to the Bulls' confidence and self-belief. "We have looked at where we let ourselves down and we know we can't afford to do the same this weekend. This has certainly become our most important match of the season now," says Elliott, who has tried desperately to remain positive in the face of sickening disappointment.

"What Wembley has shown me is that I want to be involved in games like that. I relished the occasion, even though we lost.

"I said at the time that the two best rugby teams - in either code - in the Northern Hemisphere played in that match. If we played each other 10 times, the final tally would very likely be five each. There is never going to be much between us, but what I have to do is to try to make it 6-4," says Elliott.

What an instant replay against St Helens does for Bradford is to offer them an immediate opportunity to get the Wembley hangover out of their system. "It's a good thing in that sense," says Elliott. "And we're always happy to be playing at Odsal."

Home advantage - in front of what promises to be a Super League record crowd of well over 20,000 - will be important to Bradford's ability to strike the right Bullish mood tonight.

Victory would give them not only revenge but something more tangible - a four-point lead at the top of the table. To lose to Saints for a second time would mark this week down as the one in which the whole Bradford phenomenon started to ring slightly hollow.