The higher you climb, the bigger the fall. As Bradford won their third Grand Final in five consecutive attempts at the big one, they had gotten pretty high. They were the poster boys for the success of Super League, with the switch to summertime rugby resulting in an explosion of support for the Bulls and an emergence of a new rugby superpower in Yorkshire. THey were a side that combined a brutal forward pack with a carnage loaded backline, always a lethal combination. They had climbed up to be part of the Big Four, and they had an intimidatory factor about them.
Today, things are different. Friday’s travesty of a result against Warrington (hardly a stellar performer this season) seemed to confirm Bradford’s fall from grace this season. Currently only Celtic Crusaders are below them in the table, and they have the excuse of being in their first top-flight season. Their once vaunted attack is stumbling, with only the Crusaders and Salford scoring less points. The disappointment hasn’t just begun this season either; they’ve gone out in the first round of the playoffs to Wigan the past two seasons. What must make it worse is that their local rivals Leeds are now fighting it out for alpha dog status with Saints this season, and are the current reigning (two-time) champions. Bradford are clearly not the team (or even the club) that they once were, for a few key reasons.
Firstly, the standard of players at the club is currently not up to the standard of former sides. In the 2005 Grand Final, the Bulls backline consisted of Michael Withers, Leon Pryce, Ben Harris, Shontayne Hape and Lesley Vainikolo. None of those players are still at the club and whilst it’s debatable how many of them would still be effective performers (only Pryce is still in Super League) the fact remains that quality-wise the Bulls have not replaced like-for-like. Indeed, the Bulls recruitment policy appears to consist of taking high-level performers at ‘smaller’ clubs and hoping that they will be able to step up to the demands that the Bulls’ Super League history has placed on the club. That might work with the odd player or two, but in replacing the whole backline with such players (instead of bringing players proven at the highest level) was always asking for trouble. This isn’t even taking into account the turnover that has gone on in the forwards, where what was once the most feared pack in the competition
Secondly, I don’t want to blame Steve McNamara too much, but I’m not sure making a rookie appointment as the replacement for the most successful coach in the Super League era was a smart move. Looking back at it, the turning point for McNamara was the catastrophic playoff defeat to Wigan in 2007, when Bradford managed to squander a 30-6 lead. McNamara has never regained the credibility he lost in that game (his taking off of David Solomona allowed Wigan to get a sniff again) and in many respects he has had to live in the shadow of that defeat. I’m not sure it’s just McNamara, as a lot of the general backroom and office staff appear to have changed and not necessarily for the better.
Thirdly, and this is almost certainly partially responsible (at least) for points one and two, you sense that there’s a budget tightening going on at Odsal. Why this is, I’ve no idea. Perhaps money just isn’t as flush around the club these days? The fact that Odsal is hardly a revenue stream (and indeed may be a revenue hole) cannot help this either. Crowds appear to be dwindling, and although they are still above a few other clubs, you have to wonder how they are going to re-establish their fan base with a mediocre team in a hole of a Stadium. Lost supporters means lost income, which means cutbacks have to be made elsewhere (likely the playing staff), which leads to reduced performances, which leads to… well, you get the picture.
So are Bradford doomed? Not at all. They still have a pack that is competitive and full of quality players (Solomona, Glenn Morrison) and has perhaps the best English forward prospect in the game. Tthey showed epic heart in their victory over Leeds, which showed that these players can perform. Most of their defeats this season (Friday notwithstanding) have been by a very small margin, which simply indicates a lack of finishing power and a lack of nous. The problem is that those things come at a price. Unless the Bulls show that they are more willing to splash some cash, then they’re not going to win much any time soon, and they will end up losing some of their more prized assets. Bradford are a side in transition, but they need to take proactive steps to make sure it’s an upward transition and not a downward one, because the climb back up would be a long and strenuous journey and you wonder how much this club could take it after a generation of success.
Not a great weekend, just breaking over 50 percent, and not coming close to getting a margin right in a weekend of surprising blowouts (one point off getting the Hull-Wakey result right being the current exception). Curse this crazy season!
Results: 38 / 69 (55.1%)
Margins: 2 / 69 (2.9%)