Peter Smith: Bradford Bulls facing a long road back to the RL ‘big time’

Iestyn Harris on the charge for Bradford Bulls against Leeds Rhinos in 2007.
Iestyn Harris on the charge for Bradford Bulls against Leeds Rhinos in 2007.
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A DECADE ago on Saturday, 18,195 spectators watched Bradford Bulls draw 16-16 with Leeds Rhinos at Odsal.

The game marked the Bradford club’s centenary, they salvaged a point through a late try by James Evans and were third in Super League.

Odsal Stadium.

Odsal Stadium.

Not many in that huge crowd could have predicted how far Bulls would fall over the next 10 years.

Big showdowns with Rhinos are now a thing of the past and Bulls’ key derbies are against the likes of Dewsbury Rams and Batley Bulldogs – and more often than not, the former Super League and World Club champions come off second best.

Next year they won’t have even that, though there will be a local set-to with Keighley Cougars to look forward to.

Schadenfreude – pleasure derived from another person’s misfortune – is part of sports fans’ nature, but Bulls’ decline is sad rather than funny and it’s bad for the game.

Geoff Toovey.

Geoff Toovey.

In their entire history, Bradford can have had few worse spells than from the 18th to the 52nd minutes of last Monday’s Kingstone Press Championship Shield clash with Batley.

Leading 12-0 and playing quite well, Bulls collapsed in a spectacular heap, conceding eight tries and 44 unanswered points.

If Batley hadn’t eased off in the final quarter, it would have been a cricket score.

Bradford were spectacularly bad, certainly far worse than the names on their teamsheet suggested they should be. Their defence when Batley got into gear was woeful and, though the visitors let them apply some pressure late on, some of Bulls’ attacking options were comical.

Most depressing was the crowd, just 2,609 – though that is still more than double what many of their second-tier rivals attract.

In 2003 Bulls’ average home gate was 15,259, so where have the 13,000 or so missing fans gone? They probably aren’t watching Leeds, Castleford, Batley or any other club. The sad truth is they have been lost to the game, so Bulls’ demise isn’t just a Bradford issue, it’s a rugby league one.

Next year things will get even worse. Bradford, who had 12 points deducted after going bust and being reformed before the season began, are guaranteed to finish bottom and, unless the competitions are restructured, will be playing in League One in 2018.

Opponents at that level include Coventry, South Wales, Hemel, Gloucester and Oxford. When Oxford played South Wales a couple of weeks ago the attendance was reported as 65. Sixty-five.

Bulls’ travelling support may well provide record gates – modest as they might be – for some of their opponents next year, but crowds at Odsal will slump even further. Bulls plan to operate a hybrid squad, combining full- and part-time players, but building a competitive side will not be easy and they can’t expect to romp through the division simply because of their past history.

The nightmare scenario for the Championship at the end of this season would be Hull KR, who have maintained their support at Super League levels, being promoted and Catalans Dragons dropping down.

Catalans, Toulouse and Toronto are all well-supported on their own turf, but don’t bring away fans, which will be a concern to English-based clubs at that level.

Of course, it is possible to run a successful club on gates of fewer than 1,000. Batley are proof of that. Their remaining – and sometimes thriving – for so long in the second tier on very limited resources is one of the sport’s unheralded success stories.

Batley have no pretentions to be anything other than a small, well-run community club. Bulls’ ambitions are much greater. An eventual return to Super League isn’t beyond Bradford and the competition would welcome them back, but it will be a long-term process.

Good will and trust lost over the past decade or so has to be regained.

If Geoff Toovey leaves, Bulls will also need a coach who knows the level and what’s needed to get out of it and can attract the right players.

Bradford are one of rugby league’s few big-city clubs and the sport needs them back.

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