Wakefield Trinity Wildcats’ Super League play-off hopes received a huge blow on Sunday as rivals Bradford Bulls left the Rapid Solicitors Stadium with a slender 26-24 victory.
Wildcats led for over an hour of the match as they looked to close the gap on eighth-placed Hull FC but Bulls, whose players are yet to be paid last month’s wages, showed plenty of spirit to fight back to a victory that moved them above Wakefield in the table.
Richard Agar’s men held an eight-point lead early in the second half thanks to Frankie Mariano’s try but Bradford charged to victory thanks to three tries in ten minutes from Tom Olbison, Brett Kearney and Jamie Foster.
Keith Lulia’s first-half brace kept Bulls in it after Reece Lyne and Peter Fox gave the hosts early control but Francis Cummins’ men eventually edged a close-fought contest to leave Wildcats with an uphill task of reaching the eight.
Wildcats welcomed captain Danny Kirmond, making his 100th Super League appearance, back into the fold but there was no Dean Collis, who was absent with a hamstring injury. Danny Cowling, who has been playing at Doncaster, came in at centre, while Lee Smith moved into the halves and Danny Washbrook returned to loose forward.
Both sides knew the importance of the match, especially after Hull FC thrashed Widnes Vikings on Friday night to move three points clear of Wildcats in eighth, and the hosts started strong.
Chances were at a premium but Wakefield’s first chance fell to Mariano, who was stopped short of the line.
Wildcats’ reward for their bright start came midway through the half. Mariano was again at the centre, providing a bullet pass for Reece Lyne to take well and touch down. Lee Smith added the extras with the boot.
Things got better for the hosts just before the half-hour when Cowling put Fox in at the corner for the winger’s 17th try of the season to extend Wakefield’s lead.
Wildcats had their tails up and Paul Aiton and Richard Mathers could have cemented their side’s dominance with another score only for Bradford to hang on with some last-ditch defence.
And Bulls made their hosts pay for their missed chances with two Keith Lulia tries before half-time to get them right back into the contest.
First, Heath L’Estrange took a quick tap after Wildcats had conceded a penalty and put the centre in for his first of the afternoon.
Andy Raleigh had the chance to offer an immediate reply for Wakefield but he was just held up and, at the other end, Bradford did not waste a chance of their own. Ben Cockayne conceded another penalty at the play-the-ball and Bulls worked the ball along the line for Lulia to grab his second and see Wakefield’s leads reduced to two points at half-time.
Bulls continued their momentum into the second half as L’Estrange was held up on the line but it was Wakefield who were next over to swing the game back in their favour as Tim Smith put Mariano away to score and Lee Smith comfortably converted.
Both teams knew their play-off hopes would be in tatters without victory and Bradford again showed their spirit to hit back seven minutes later. Gale’s grubber kick deflected off the boot of Ali Lauitiiti and Olbison was there to touchdown. Foster converted.
This time the visitors were able to build on their try and scored twice in as many minutes to lead for the first time in the match - a lead they would not relinquish.
Full-back Kearney finished off a superb move crafted by Kear and Foster down the left to put Bulls ahead before Lulia provided a superb off-load for Foster to dive over in the corner minutes later and give the visitors a hold on the game.
Lee Smith spun over for a try with five minutes left, and also converted, to set-up a big finish with just two points in it but Bradford hung on to give their play-off hopes a big boost.
Wildcats: Mathers, Fox, Cowling, Lyne, Cockayne, L. Smith, T. Smith, Poore, Aiton, Amor, Amor, Mariano, Kirmond, Washbrook. Subs: Lauitiiti, Trout, Tautai, Raleigh.
Tries: Reece Lyne 21, Peter Fox 28, Frankie Mariano 46, Lee Smith 75
Goals: Lee Smith 4/4
Bulls: Kearney, Kear, Purtell, Lulia, Foster, Sammut, Gale, Scruton, Diskin, Evans, Langley, Olbison, Donaldson. Subs: Walker, L’Estrange, Manuokafoa, Addy.
Tries: Keith Lulia 35, 39, Tom Olbison 53, Brett Kearney 63, Jamie Foster 65.
Goals: Jamie Foster 3/5
Referee: James Child.