York City Knights 20 Bradford Bulls 22
Today saw the beginning of the Betfred League 1 season and without question the match of the day was found at Bootham Crescent where York City Knights played host to a Bradford Bulls team playing at the third tier for the first time in their history.
Indications of what was to come started weeks ago with the Bulls requesting more and more tickets and, when the Knights’ twitter feed began advising fans to arrive early – gates opened at 1.30 – it began to dawn on many that a bumper crowd was in the offing and 4281 fans turned up to the home of the Knights’ footballing neighbours. That figure is a record for the team since its inception in 2005 and it perhaps an indication of what other teams should be expecting when Bradford come to town this season. York, as they did with the visit of Toronto last season, ensured the day went smoothly and displayed the great strides the club is making on and off the field and, with the presence of Rugby AM’s cameras and Wayne ‘Wagga’ Godwin pitchside, publicity is guaranteed. Indeed, Wagga tried to get a thunderclap going before kick off but, much like many of the pyrotechnics on show, it was rather a damp squib.
Fortunately, the match certainly was not. The build up wasn’t without difficulty for the Knights as a bout of illness struck the camp earlier in the week and, when the initialy 19 man squad was revealed, many of the club’s stars were absent. In fact, six of the starting thirteen on Sunday afternoon were absent from the published squad list on Friday afternoon. Will Oakes, Matty Marsh and Kieran Moss came in from Hull KR and full back Ash Robson, returning Sam Scott and former Super League forward Graeme Horne came in. Gamesmanship? Perhaps, but it definitely gave the Knights a stronger line up and the hosts started brightly. From a Connor Robinson chip to the corner, Bradford winger Dalton Grant dithered and allowed the ball to bounce, leading to a Bull’s drop out and York opened the scoring from the next set. As the ball came from the middle of the pitch, last year’s star player Joe Batchelor found a great line and broke through the defensive line. When the tackle came, he managed to keep his momentum and, crucially, throw the pass out wide to Moss who, on debut, grounded in the corner under pressure from Grant.
The game was very end to end with both teams conceding knock ons and fierce defence was on show from both teams. One passage saw new recruit Greg McNally dispatch a chipped reverse kick over York’s defensive line earned the visitors a drop out and, from the resulting set, the Bulls engineered an overlap which beat the Knights’ sliding defence but, with the line calling, Ethan Ryan dropped the ball yards out and the pressure was relieved momentarily.
Minutes later, though, following the penalisation of Ben Cockayne, Bradford found themselves deep in York territory. Following a Joe Keyes kick – more on him later – Moss failed to gather under pressure and the ball bounced out to former Super League player Ashley Gibson ran in to make the score 6-4. Robinson kicked a penalty over after a passage which saw the Knights claim a try before Mossleigh ruled it had been grounded in goal by the Bulls. However, an 8-4 lead was York’s before an exhilarating ending to the first half.
Following an Ash Robson knock on in his own twenty following a big hit, a last gasp Cockayne tackle on Ryan saved the full back’s blushes briefly but then, on the next attacking set, Lee Smith broke the line and passed out to Elliott Minchella to cross and, following the conversion, the visitors took a hardly deserved 10-8 lead. I for one thought that would be it for the half but James Ford’s York City Knights team are made of very stern stuff and they didn’t dare see the game off to half time with a two nil deficit. Will Jubb was stopped by the finest of margins and, following that, referee Mossleigh made his biggest call of the half. Following a Robinson kick, Batchelor was convinced he had grounded the ball. The fans were convinced. His teammates were convinced. Mossleigh, crucially, was not and his verdict was that the second rower had knocked on.
Nevertheless, half time came and the fans were glad to catch their breath after an incredible first forty minutes of the season.
Bradford came out for the second forty with the bit between their teeth and giant forward Steve Crossley crashed through the line following a strange call where the ref deemed that Moss wasn’t tackled in the air. At 16-8, the Knights may well have folded but Batchelor was not of the mind to do so. In response to Bradford racing to an eight point lead, he picked up a loose ball around halfway and, displaying pace rarely seen in a forward, he galloped through to the line to give the Knights the impetus again as they started the season with superb effort and attitude. Soon after, the same man was at it again after both teams traded penalties. York’s 2017 Player of the Year saw the ball flying towards him inches out following great work by fellow packman Siddons and touched down. Following Robinson’s conversion, the scores were level.
Since joining from Halifax last season, Robinson’s left boot has both scored and earned plenty of points for the Minster city club and today was no different. Tactically, his place kicking was immaculate with various grubbers and punts guiding the Knights around the pitch but, following Batchelor’s try, the 23 year old gave his team the lead with a drop goal following great work by Siddons.
19-18. Minutes left.
The referee came to the fore again. Rightly or wrongly, a penalty was given to the Bulls for reefing and Keyes nailed the kick from 44 metres. 19-20 Bradford. Less time left.
Up the other end the Knights went and, with the ball bobbling around the in goal area, that man Robinson celebrated like he had won the match. Again, the Knights were sure they had scored, Bradford were crushed. The referee, though, had heard otherwise from his touch judge who deemed that the Bulls had, again, grounded in goal beforehand. From the set following Bradford’s drop out, Robinson again nailed a drop goal, seeing the scores tie up at 20-20. Another was charged down by visiting hooker Sam Hallas and, crushingly, the Bulls went back up the field.
In the tackle, Man of the Match Adam Robinson – the prop who was immense throughout the game – was judged to have stolen the ball illegally. Keyes lined up the penalty. The hooter sounded. The ball flew over and, tellingly, Bradford celebrated with a passion rarely seen for a league game. York City Knights, after all, are all part time players whereas the majority of the Bulls are full time.
Perhaps that is a testament to the work done by James Ford and co. at the Knights and, on that showing, the club definitely have a campaign to look forward to this season. It doesn’t, however, remove the crushing feeling the home fans will have felt after knowing that they pushed the former world champions so close on the opening day.
Knights Robson, Cockayne, Oakes, Hey, Moss, C Robinson, Marsh, A Robinson, A Ellis, Horne, Batchelor, Scott, Spears. Subs (all used) Jubb, Siddons, Dixon, Porter
Bulls McNally, Grant, Gibson, Smith, Ryan, Keyes, Minchella, Crossley, Hallas, Kirk, Garside, Johnson, Milton. Subs (all used) Peltier, Halafihi, Wood, Pickersgill