Rugby League: Bradford and Leeds look to put season back on course

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WHEN MATTHEW Elliott and his Bradford side were jeered off the field at Odsal last week it was the end of the honeymoon for Super League's most spectacular success story.

It was not just a case of natural disappointment after another defeat; it knocked a hole in the Bulls' philosophy that it is the experience that matters even more than the result. Bradford have made a better hand of promoting and marketing the game than any other club, but, as another commercial manager said recently: "If your team's crap, you don't sell a thing".

The Bulls aren't that bad yet but they badly need a home win tomorrow over Hull to get the bitter taste out of their mouths.

"It certainly wasn't my high point as a coach," said Elliott, who has doubts over Paul Deacon's shoulder injury and might promote his two new signings, Nathan McAvoy and Neil Harmon, to the starting team.

Leeds also need to get back on track after suffering their third defeat of the season at Castleford last week. Graham Murray has worries over Marc Glanville and Paul Sterling, but should have Adrian Morley back in his starting line-up. He is also likely to reshuffle his half-backs after expressing disappointment with Iestyn Harris and Graham Holroyd in those roles last week.

Their opponents Salford are likely to give a debut to their new Australian, Shane Kenward, even though his delayed flight arrived yesterday morning.

St Helens are likely to be unchanged at Warrington, who have major problems at full-back with Lee Penny carrying an ankle injury and his replacement last week, Dave Highton, out with a damaged foot. Their veteran winger, Mark Forster, returns after suspension.

Arguably the biggest game of the weekend, in terms of the sport's long- term development, is in the unlikely setting of Cheltenham today, where the South Norfolk Saints and the Crawley Jets meet in the first Grand Final of the Rugby League Conference.

Thetford (the home of the Saints) and Crawley are two towns where the game has thrived this year. The Saints, however, have failed in an attempt to have the match postponed. One of their forwards, Micky Byrne, is getting married and three other players will also be missing because of the wedding.

That gives Crawley - an amalgam of students, teachers and workers at Gatwick Airport - the chance to become the first winners of the Harry Jepson Trophy, and to claim a place in next season's Challenge Cup.

Their inspiration is Rod Hammond, a Kiwi who has broken off from travelling the world to play for them this season, and there will be three coach- loads of their supporters in Cheltenham to see whether they can take advantage of the Saints' fixture clash.

n The Rugby Football League has affirmed that this autumn's Test series against New Zealand will go ahead as planned. Doubts were raised by the New Zealand RL president, Gerald Ryan, who is angry that several Super League clubs are set to prevent English-based Kiwis playing in two Tests against Australia on the eve of the British series. That would contravene international rules but representatives from all the major rugby league- playing nations are hoping to work out a solution at a meeting in Sydney later this month.