fourteen years ago yesterday, Leeds Rhinos visited Bradford Bulls for the third of what was to be five meetings between the West Yorkshire sides that season.
Leeds were on a 10-game winning run in Super League and anxious to reverse earlier losses to Bradford, 24-18 in April’s Challenge Cup final at Murrayfield and, embarrassingly, 44-2 in a home league clash the following month.
That evening in July 2000 at Odsal produced a magnificent game and an equally memorable occasion as a crowd of 21,237 watched Leeds edge a thriller 28-26.
A month and a half later Rhinos made their second league trip of the season to Odsal and again it was a two-point ball game, this time Bradford squeezing to a 14-12 victory, in front of 19,623.
That was billed as the final match at Odsal before the stadium was redeveloped, with Bulls due to take up temporary residence at Bradford City’s Valley Parade base the following year.
As it happened, the redevelopment never took place and that league clash proved to be not even Leeds’ last visit to Odsal that year.
Just 22 days after the league meeting Rhinos were back in the play-offs and were soundly beaten, 46-12.
The derby crowd that time was the lowest of the season, just 15,077.
In 2000 Odsal was the most vibrant stadium in the game and Bulls were Super League’s best-supported club, attracting 203,278 fans to their 14 home league fixtures.
In those days it was a case of arrive early, or face a very long walk to the ground. This season, Bulls fans turning up an hour before kick-off must have feared they might end up getting a game.
How things change. Tomorrow night will see already-relegated Bulls visit Headingley Carnegie for the final league fixture between the two sides, until 2016 at best.
When Leeds eased to a 46-6 victory at Bradford over Easter, the crowd was only 10,106 and there was nothing special about either the game or the occasion – other than the feeling it wasn’t likely to be repeated for some time.
For a spell in the last decade, games between Leeds and Bradford were undoubtedly the biggest in rugby league. They meant the most on the field – the teams met in four finals, with Bradford winning three of them – and attracted the largest crowds.
It will be a sad occasion for Bulls’ true supporters, the ones who were there before – or perhaps because of the glory days – and have stayed loyal through the bad times.
But as a club Bulls have only themselves to blame for the fact next year’s derby could well be against Keighley.
Other clubs have been through tough times. In 1996 Leeds ran out of cash and were almost relegated, after conceding 50 points home and away against Bradford.
But clearly the success Bulls enjoyed a decade or so ago was not sustainable and mistakes and bad decisions made by previous regimes have come to this.
Even so, it is a sad situation and Super League is poorer for the loss of another big-city club.
Bradford have proven crowd-pulling potential and only three clubs attracted a larger gate last weekend than Bulls did for their home clash with Wigan.
Enjoying your rivals’ misery is part of the game and Leeds supporters will certainly do that tomorrow night.
But those games in the 2000s were some of the best of the Super League era and the competition will be better for it if those days return, sooner rather than later.
BIG CLUBS have been relegated in the past and bunced back: Widnes, Castleford, Hull and Hull KR all being examples.
It will be harder for Bradford Bulls and London Broncos though, after they drop out of First Utility Super League at the end of this season.
The new league structure from next year will see the bottom four in Super League go into a qualifying competition alongside the Kingstone Press Championship’s leading quartet. They will play each other once in the so-called Super 8s and the top three at the end of that will be ‘promoted’ into Super League for 2016. The fourth and fifth-placed teams will play-off, at the higher ranked side’s ground, for the final Super League place, in what will be billed as the Million Pound Game.
Staying full-time and with more funding than rival teams, Bulls should be good enough to be in the top-four when the split occurs. They may also have an advantage, as a team used to winning, coming up against Super League sides who have been in losing form. But most of their fixtures next year will be of a lesser intensity and they will then need to record two wins against higher-ranked opposition to go up. That will take a lot of doing.