THE DEMISE of Bradford Bulls is a massive shame and a warning to other clubs, Leeds Rhinos boss Brian McDermott believes.
McDermott is steeped in Bulls-Rhinos rivalry, as a player with Bradford for nine years and then during two spells on Leeds’ coaching staff, as assistant and ultimately team boss.
With five rounds of the First Utility Super League season still to play, Bulls – champions as recently as nine years ago – are already doomed to relegation and tomorrow’s derby at Headingley Carnegie will be the final league meeting between the sides, until 2016 at least.
“I don’t think anyone would ever have contemplated that,” McDermott said of the prospect of relegation during his time as a player at Odsal. “The first bit of success we had – if you want to call it success – was when we appeared in the Challenge Cup final in 1996.
“We won the league the year after and went unbeaten for 21 games. The money counters back then may have said it is hard to sustain, I wouldn’t know, but the people who were at Bradford at the time thought about winning the competition and being front-runners for years to come.
“It is a travesty, an absolute travesty.”
The fact a club which won every available summer era honour – Super League four times, league leaders and World Club Challenge three times each and Challenge Cup twice – and played in front of 20,000 crowds can fall from grace so steeply should serve as a warning to others, McDermott added.
“Widnes were really dominant for a while, then they went down,” he observed. “They have come back and they are building into being a very strong club now. Let’s hope this is the last big club that struggles like this. You have got to take care of your off-field affairs.
“The way it has been done, the last three or four years, it has been painful to see. It has not been a great advertisement for our competition.”
McDermott feels rugby league will be poorer without regular clashes between West Yorkshire’s two big cities.
“There’s been some great encounters,” McDermott said. “You would argue that the two big derbies – Wigan-Saints and Leeds-Bradford – have been highlights of the Super League era.
“We have seen some cracking games over the last nearly 20 years. It is a shame and it will be sad that we won’t be able to see them for another year – and there is no guarantee we are going to see them the year after. While the new format means there’s a few teams can get up, I think it is going to be a tougher version of promotion.”
But McDermott is confident Bulls can be a force again. He said: “We all know if and when Bradford do start to get back in the top flight or start to become a good club again, that base is there. People will come. The brand of Bradford Bulls, while it is probably diluted at the moment, is still a very strong brand and can be a very strong brand.
“Add a few wins, get them back in Super League, challenge for honours and I don’t think they will have a problem getting the crowds back.
BRADFORD BULLS football manager Stuart Duffy has experienced derbies against Leeds Rhinos from both sides of the fence and admits the sport will be poorer without them next year.
Duffy grew up watching Leeds and worked for the club before moving to Bradford during their glory years in the late 1990s.
“It’s sad from the club’s point of view,” he said of the prospect of no league derby between the teams next year.
“Also from the fans’ point of view and the game’s point of view.
“From about 2001-2007 they were the biggest games in rugby league.
“Once Leeds got their act together under Graham Murray they became massive games, high-quality games full of drama and skill.
“Sadly that has not been the case for the last few years, though they always stir up the emotions.
“But during that period, the level of intensity was tremendous.”
Rhinos romped to a 46-6 victory away to Bradford at Easter, but Duffy feels tomorrow’s game will be tighter, particularly after Bulls’ stunning win over Wigan last weekend.
“I think we will give it a go,” he said. “We showed last Sunday just what we can do.
“It was great to beat Wigan. It is always good to beat the champions, but I still think the Leeds game is the most important to people in a Bulls shirt.”
LIFELONG LEEDS Rhinos fan Mark Stephenson has sympathy for Bradford Bulls’ fan base, but not for the club.
“The harsh reality is, it is self-inflicted,” Stephenson said of Bradford’s plunge from champions into the Championship.
“From a Bradford fans’ point of view it has been heartbreaking, but it has been coming.
“They talk about winning the Grand Final in 2005, but they were over the salary cap that year, so the RFL should have stripped them of it.
“The signs were there then, they lost players like Jamie Peacock and it has carried on and on.”
Bulls’ relegation will cost Leeds a lucrative home game, but Stephenson added: “The attendance and atmosphere for the derbies has been declining for the last four years.
“The plus point is Castleford’s rise under Daryl Powell. That rivalry is more intense when Castleford are challenging than when Bradford are.”
The games against Bulls – traditionally including one over the Easter holiday period – used to be the first Leeds supporters looked for when fixtures were published in the autumn.
Stephenson admitted it will be strange without that in 2015, but he stressed: “I am more hopeful for next season that Cas can be where they are now, challenging for honours.
“If that is the case, they (derbies against Bradford) won’t be missed. But it would be good to see Bradford back and mounting a real challenge.”