Featherstone Rovers overcome gutsy Bradford Bulls to clinch league leaders’ shield

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Featherstone Rovers overcame a gutsy Bradford Bulls side to clinch the league leaders’ shield in an engaging contest at Odsal.

Tries from Dan Smith, Gareth Gale and Craig Aekins helped Rovers to secure top spot in the Championship after consecutive second-place finishes in 2021 and 2022.

This is only part of the job for James Ford’s side with their sights now firmly on a home play-off semi-final and then, hopefully, a shot at Super League in October’s grand final.

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But for 68 minutes at this famous old rugby league ground, they could have had to wait a little bit longer for the shield after the Bulls produced a determined performance.

Odsal Stadium, home of Bradford BullsOdsal Stadium, home of Bradford Bulls
Odsal Stadium, home of Bradford Bulls

In a tightly contested game, the majority of the 4,567 crowd were brought to life in the tenth minute when Jordan Lilley was seemingly taken out when the ball had already been played, but the late tackle went unpunished by the referee.

The Bulls’ fans’ misery would have been compounded in Fev’s next set had Fenton Rogers not been able to splendidly deny Gadwin Springer - one of five changes which Ford made to the 17 which beat Keighley Cougars 36-6 last weekend - with an ankle tap when he was clean through.

That was Rogers’ last meaningful involvement as he was helped from the field moments later after suffering a knock and was replaced by Ebon Scurr.

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And without the heroics of a last-ditch Rogers tackle, Rovers grabbed the game’s opening try moments later when Smith darted over from close range.

The Bulls, however, have their own ambitions of reaching Super League after dropping from the top tier in 2014 and, with three wins on the spin before this affair with the runaway league leaders, they had nudged comfortably into third place in the Championship.

And they dragged themselves back into the contest when Jayden Myers displayed fantastic athleticism to scoop up a high, bouncing kick from Lee Gaskell. Lilley missed the conversion as Fev held a slender advantage.

The home side, however, came close to a second try but Gale, known for his try scoring exploits, had to be alert defensively to knock a grubber kick behind for a goal-line dropout.

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Featherstone had the half’s final chance on the hooter but Chris Hankinson couldn’t touch the ball down following a Brad Day kick.

And the visitors started the second half like they ended the first - on the front foot. They looked certain to score in their very first set but the Bulls, somehow, kept them out on their own line and even forced an error.

But they couldn’t keep them out for long. And once Gale stretched his legs down the left wing, 25 metres out, there was no way of stopping him. He was too fast and far too powerful. There was only going to be one winner as he charged over the line for his 25th of the Championship campaign.

But, just like they did in the first half, Bradford responded well to the setback with Brad England going over in the far corner after being supplied by Billy Jowitt.

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It is fair to say, at this point, that Fev were under the cosh. They had three successive goal-line dropouts to defend and the home fans smelt a league-leaders’-shield-ruining-party.

But these home fans, who had only tasted defeat twice at Odsal all season, were silenced when Aekins, played in by Joey Leilua, went over for his 14th try of the season.

Kheirallah added the extras and the Bulls could not force a response, as Fev secured top spot in the Championship with a 16-8 victory.

Bradford: Holmes, Myers, Arundel, Gill, Foggin-Johnston, Gaskell, Lilley, Lawrence, Flanagan Snr, Rogers, England, Wallace, Baitieri

Interchanges: Jowitt, Scurr, Appo, Doro

Tries: Myers, England

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Featherstone: Kheirallah, Hall, Leilua, Hankinson, Gale, Aekins, Chisholm, Springer, Wildie, Lockwood, Day, Longstaff, Smith

Interchanges: Jones, Davies, Moors, Cozza

Tries: Smith, Gale, Aekins

Conversions: Kheirallah (2)

Attendance: 4,567