Paul looks for a grand farewell as Bradford prepare major clear-out

Inspirational Bull faces tonight's Super League elimination semi-final uncertain about his future, writes Dave Hadfield
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The Independent Online

Paul is what the late marketing genius Peter Deakin used to call his "franchise player" - the man who was synonymous with the Bulls and the image they had set out to portray.

It comes as a shock, then, to check back in the record books and be reminded that the club he joined as an 18-year-old was Bradford Northern, and that his first coach there was that field marshal of the old school, Peter Fox.

It will be rather less of a shock if, 11 years later, he is on his way out. The road between Bradford and Huddersfield has been thick with rumours that Paul will be a Giant next season.

There is a major clear-out looming at Bradford and there is a feeling among many at the club that Paul, who commands a pretty hefty wage for a player now used almost exclusively from the bench, will be a part of it.

"There's nothing decided as of now," he insists. "I'm contracted here until the end of 2007 and that's all that's on my mind at the moment. I haven't spoken to Huddersfield, but there again I haven't spoken to Bradford either. I leave all that business to my manager."

All this uncertainty comes at a time when Paul has delivered a reminder that he is still a useful presence for the Bulls, as well as a symbolic one. Although it is his fate now to be regarded primarily as a replacement hooker, Paul Deacon's illness last week allowed him to play a full 80 minutes against the London Broncos in his old position of scrum-half.

"It took the whole of the first half to get back into the swing of things, but I really enjoyed being back there. There's no drama about it; I just prefer playing half-back.

"I enjoy hooker, but the trouble is that you do so much work that, when you get a chance to do something in attack, you're too knackered."

Not only will Deacon be back against Hull tonight, Paul's chances at hooker could eventually dry up if Bradford go ahead with their strongly rumoured move for Wigan's Great Britain cap Terry Newton.

"I know most of the comings and goings here and I was surprised by that one. Terry's a class player and a tough character - one of those players you don't like playing against."

Bradford would not be playing anyone this week if they had not pulled themselves together for a second half against the Broncos in which Paul figured prominently. Apart from Peacock, his successor as captain, Paul gives credit for that turn-around to Iestyn Harris.

"The call was to empty the dressing-room - just the players in there. Iestyn got the players around him and I don't know where the speech came from - maybe the Welsh valleys. He talked about the shirts not being ours, just being loaned to us. I looked into his eyes and they were welling up."

Paul knows that it will take more than half-time eloquence to save the Bulls if they make a similarly slow start against Hull at Odsal this evening. "The slow starts are all over now. We're down to the best teams - the Challenge Cup winners, the teams who finished first and second - and we can't afford to give anything away."

Two reasons for that are two of Paul's former colleagues in the New Zealand side, Stephen Kearney and Richard Swain - players he sees as largely responsible for Hull's success so far this season.

"Stephen's strong finish to the season hasn't surprised me at all, because he knows how to produce his best in the big games. He's been the No 1 player in the world in his position, a natural leader and a gentleman to boot. He's been through it all before.

"I rate Richard Swain as Hull's most dangerous player. He's probably the smartest rugby league player in the world. He's not been gifted with exceptional pace or ability, but he knows how to play his position better than anyone in the game.

"You spend your time watching Paul Cooke, Richard Horne and all those good players and the next thing you know Richard is setting up a try.

"I know how much extra work you have to do at hooker and he knows how to get the best out of the players around him. You've only to see how those front-rowers at Hull have developed since he's been there."

Win or lose, this will be Bradford's last match at Odsal this year. It seems too stark that it could be Paul's last as a Bull, after all he has achieved at the club. He has been central to all their Super League success over the past 10 seasons, not to mention small matters like becoming the first player to score a hat-trick of tries in a Challenge Cup final at Wembley.

"It's been give and take from both of us," he says of his long relationship with the club. "It's been fantastic for me, but I believe I've helped the club achieve what it has.

"I could walk away now with pride and retire. The problem is that I still feel I have a lot to give the game of rugby league."

Yes, he could walk away - but would that be away from Bradford or away from the game as a whole? That is a question that is not quite ready for an answer.

"It's probably the same thing," he says, with that characteristic twinkle which, as much as anything he has done on the field, defines what he has brought to his club and his code.