The final game of the regular Championship season was a Sunday tea time kick off between the Sheffield Eagles and the Bradford Bulls with plenty still to play for in determining who would have the all important home advantage in next weeks’ opening play-off round.
Both sides were guaranteed a spot, but the winner of this encounter would determine who would finish the season in third spot and have a home game next week against York RLFC Knights, a win for Bradford would see them finish third, while a loss for Sheffield would see them drop to fourth and have to face London Broncos in Sheffield in a weeks’ time.
The Bulls were slight favourites with the bookies but they were only handicapped by two points on the coupon, all indications were that it would be a close one.
Great defence from Bradford denied Matty Dawson-Jones with the game just three minutes old as they pushed him into touch in goal as he went for the corner and on five minutes Kris Welham was held up on the Bulls line on the last tackle.
It was a war of attrition punctuated by the odd moment of panic leading to handling mistakes from both sides.
On fifteen Eribe Doro was held up over the line by Jesse Sene-Lefeo, and two plays later Bradford thought that they were in as they crossed in the right corner off a nice passing move, but the referee ruled a forward pass.
The first try came on twenty-one minutes and the end of a period of Bulls dominance with Joe Arundel taking a short no-look pass to go through a gap in the Eagles defence and ground from five metres out. Jordan Lilley was wide with his conversion, wind assisted.
Just after the half hour mark the Eagles struck back with their opening try, Cory Aston finding Quentin Laulu-Togaga’e in an acre of space to go through the Bulls line without a hand laid upon him. Aston added the extra two to give his side the lead.
On thirty-six the Bulls had another try, this one through Chester Butler, ruled out for a forward pass.
On the stroke of half time an awful mistake from the Eagles, Thackeray throwing a wayward pass which was pounced upon by Liam Tindall to ground. Lilley hit the near upright with his kick, Bradford taking a two-point lead into the break.
Two minutes after the restart the Bulls extended their lead when Fenton Rodgers offloaded to Lilley on the line to dive over and score. Lilley added the conversion for a 14-6 lead. It had been a double whammy from Bradford either side of the half time break.
The game was in danger of slipping away from Sheffield.
The Eagles were given a penalty on the Bulls line on forty-nine, but the Bulls defended well and kept their line intact but on fifty-four the Eagles were held up short but on the next play Ben Jones-Bishop danced through the Bulls defence to score from ten meres out. The conversion from Jack Hansen was wide of the uprights.
The Bulls went straight on the attack on the back of a strange bounce of the ball and on fifty-eight they were held up over the line and on the last tackle Ben Blackmore was unable to ground as he chased the ball into goal.
Into the last twenty minutes there was very little between the sides.
A tackle, off the ball, gifted the Bulls a penalty on sixty-one and Lilley kicked the points to take the lead to six points.
With eight minutes remaining Dawson-Jones was on the end of fast hands down the left to go around the Bulls defence and score in the corner. Hansen was wide with the conversion attempt, Sheffield still two adrift.
Sheffield were gifted a penalty on seventy-nine when Tindall picked up a ball in an offside position. Hansen kicked the penalty to level the scores at 16-16 with ninety seconds left on the clock.
Thirty seconds from the final hooter Lilley kicked a drop goal and on the sounding of the hooter, Thackeray attempted a drop goal but missed the target, Bradford taking the win, the two points and third place in the table.
A breathless game, with a fair share of errors from both sides ended in the most exciting possible climax. Bradford now have a home game against the York Knights while Sheffield will welcome the London Broncos to the Olympic Legacy Stadium next weekend for what look like two fabulous play off matches.
Sheffield Eagles: Laulu-Togaga’e (T), Jones-Bishop (T), Welham. Glover, Dawson-Jones (T), Aston (G), Thackeray, Douglas, Hansen (G), Dickinson, Murphy, Sene-Lefeo, Hodgson. Subs: Gwaze, Farrell J, Broadbent, Liu. 18th Man: Halafihi.
Bradford Bulls: Holmes, Blackmore, Arundel (T), Gill, Tindall (T), Gaskell, Lilley (T, 2G, DG), Lawrence, Jowitt, Matongo, Butler, Wallace, Doro. Subs: Wynne, Scurr, Appo, Rogers. 18th Man: England.
Score Progression: 0-4, 4-4, 6-4, 6-8 : HT: 6-12, 6-14, 10-14, 10-16, 14-16, 16-16, 16-17 :FT.
Lead Exchanges: Bradford – Square – Sheffield – Bradford – Square - Bradford.
Referee: Marcus Griffiths.