Rugby League: Lowes rises above the rest

Bradford 24 Castleford 8
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THE PRESSURE is largely off Bradford when it comes to qualifying for the top five playoff, but yesterday they looked well short of the form required to retain their Super League title in laboured victory.

The ridiculously early kick-off time, to suit television, saw this contest billed as "High Noon," but it rarely rose above a low standard, with the Bradford hooker, James Lowes, the one notable exception.

It was Lowes' break, so typical of much of his best work last season, that set up Stuart Spruce's try in the eighth minute. That, along with three Steve McNamara goals, gave the Bulls the perfect start and, had they been anything like their old selves, they would have made short work of a moderate Castleford side.

Even with their latest reinforcement, Harvey Howard, in their line-up, however, Bradford made hard work of what should have been a routine win.

Castleford's handling was deplorable in the early stages, but they were allowed to settle into the game and a modicum of grit and determination were sufficient to bring them right back into contention.

A penalty from Danny Orr got them moving and then Spruce and John Scales both failed to clear Mike Ford's kick and Orr arrived to claim a try, which he converted himself to bring Cas within two points.

A penalty against Dean Sampson, for holding down Bernard Dwyer, gave McNamara his 600th point for the club, but Castleford had their chances early in the second half to stretch Bradford out wide and to wipe out their lead.

They also firmed up their defence sufficiently to keep the Bulls' attacking incursions, particularly from the lively Tevita Vaikona, at bay. For 25 minutes, the match was there to be won.

But then another McNamara penalty, this time awarded against Lee Harland for holding on to Spruce, stretched Bradford's lead and a mistake by Michael Smith enabled the Bulls to draw clear for what was ultimately a fluttering win.

When Smith tried to pass out of the tackle, Lowes picked up the loose ball and Graeme Bradley's pass sent Scales crashing over in the corner, McNamara this time missing the target with his conversion attempt.

With six minutes to play, Lowes produced another reprieve of the repertoire that brought Bradford so many points during their unstoppable march last year. Apparently held near the line, the hooker wrestled his way out of the tackle and forced his way over, McNamara's sixth goal completing the scoring.

The win puts Bradford four points ahead of London and Sheffield in fifth place and only a major disaster can stop them qualifying for the play- offs now. It will take a far more convincing performance than this to take them any further, though, and Matthew Elliott, their coach, will know that there is much work to be done at Odsal if they are to have any chance of hanging on to their crown.

Bradford: Spruce; Vaikona, McAvoy, Bradley, Scales; Paul, Deacon; McDermott, Lowes, Harmon, Forshaw, Dwyer, McNamara. Substitutes used: Fielden, Howard, Donougher, Ekoku.

Castleford: Gay; Critchley, Mather, Maloney, Wells; Orr, Ford; Sampson, Russell, McKell, Harland, Smith, Vowles. Substitutes used: Chapman, Schick, Sykes, Flowers.

Referee: S Cummings (Widnes).