Published in Rugby League World in 2009
Super League Round Two
Bradford Bulls 6-26 Leeds Rhinos
Sunday 12th April 1998, Odsal Stadium
“That day at Odsal is still vivid in my mind and what a great day it was. A lot of the Leeds fans said to me before the game “We don‘t care if we don‘t win, just make it a good score!” I looked at them in bewilderment saying “We’re going to win” and then they were looking at me in amazement! We put our foot in the door of the competition that day.” – Graham Murray
Harris hat-trick stuns champions
It was 21 games into the 1997 Super League season before the Bulls came off the field beaten and by that time they had already sewn up the Super League title in the last year that the top dogs won the crown.
Since then, of course, the champions have been decided by way of a Grand Final at the end of a month of play-offs. If anyone in West Yorkshire was going to be contesting a Grand Final, then surely it would be the awesome Bulls who had added to their champion side by signing the great Shaun Edwards.
But little did we know back then that the signing of Edwards would actually upset the Bulls’ apple-cart. Famously, the former Great Britain captain didn’t see eye to eye with the Bulls’ influential Australian Graeme Bradley and before the season’s end, Edwards was on his way back to London Broncos.
At the time however, it appeared that Edwards could only strengthen the Bulls. On the other hand, the Rhinos recruitment looked less excitement. Neither Marc Glanville nor Brad Godden had played in a Test match or even in a State-of-Origin encounter, although both had enjoyed excellent careers down under. But it seemed strange that Leeds, who had finished tenth and fifth in the first two seasons of Super League should sign only two new players.
But the most notable change at Headingley occured in the coach’s office. Dean Bell selflessly stepped aside from head coach into the role of Academy coach and went on to oversee the development of future stars like Rob Burrow and Danny McGuire. Graham Murray came in and immediately stiffened up the Rhinos whose forwards, in no time at all, adopted a ferocious style of play, particularly in defence. The pack was so good that Barrie McDermott struggled to be selected for most of the season and was even loaned out to Bramley.
Murray even remembers the air of pessimism that surrounded the Leeds fans going into the game: “A lot of Leeds fans said to me before the game, ‘just make it a good score.’ I looked at them in bewilderment saying ‘we’re going to win’ and then they were looking at me in amazement!”
That pack included the little-known Darren Fleary who had arrived from Keighley towards the end of 1997 season along with Daryl Powell, whose career appeared to be winding down. But the two went on to enjoy a couple of magnificent years under Murray at Leeds. Anthony Farrell was another who was to enjoy the best years of his career in that Leeds side while Adrian Morley was just starting out on the road to greatness. Murray ended up taking him to the Sydney Roosters where he carved himself out a reputation as a club legend and one of the best forwards ever to play for the Bondi club.
Those forwards ripped into the Bulls from the off, giving their complacent opposition a torrid opening 20 minutes. Fleary and Farrell in particular led the way and it was no surprise when Leeds opened the scoring. It was the Kiwi Test pair of Tony Kemp and Richie Blackmore who did the damage with the Rhinos attacking the Bulls left-side defence. Kemp’s magnificent catch and pass in one movement released Blackmore who beat the Bulls’ fullback, Stuart Spruce, in front of the Leeds fans.
Their joy could have been short-lived had the Bulls not bizarrely decided to ignore Edwards on two occasions when he supported a clean break. Edwards’ frustration was clear for all to see – early signs that all was not well for the former Wigan legend at Odsal.
From that point on, one man dominated the show. Iestyn Harris. The Welsh international went on to dominate most of the season and was an obvious winner of every individual honour at the end of the season. He picked up the Man of Steel, the players’ player of the year and the writers’ player of the year as well as, of course, the Rhinos’ player of the year. This was the game when he laid down his marker and demonstrated what was to come in a glorious personal year.
Odsal was, of course, the ground where Harris plied his trade from 2005 to 2008 when he returned from rugby union. His spell at the Bulls had its ups and downs and the general consensus was that the big-money signing of Harris was a mistake. But in Bradford on that freezing Easter Sunday, Odsal certainly saw the best of Iestyn Harris.
In the 27th minute, he chimed into the line from fullback to take a Graham Holroyd ball from the base of the scrum and dummied his way over for a beautiful try. Again, the defining image was provided by Edwards who, in the background of Sky’s slow-motion replay, couldn’t hide his dismay at being brushed aside with ease by a rampant Harris. Leeds were two scores up and in great form in front of 19,188 fans – Odsal’s highest crowd for 40 years.
Harris added another try four minutes before half-time, this time taking Ryan Sheridan’s pass and side-stepping Mike Forshaw to ground the ball in the corner. He completed his hat-trick in the 68th-minute with another show and go that became his trademark in those early days of his career.
Paul Sterling added a long-range try late on and all the Bulls could muster in return was a try to centre Matt Calland in the first ten minutes of the second half.
To the fans’ delight, they were even treated to some late fisticuffs. Sonny Nickle was sent off in what looked a terribly harsh decision by referee Stuart Cummings while Richie Blackmore was only sin-binned for his part in their 73rd-minute scuffle. Two minutes later, Spruce and Francis Cummins – hardly a noted fighter – were also binned for fighting.
But nothing was going to stop the Rhinos celebrations while the Bulls went on to endure a mediocre season, finishing a disappointing fifth by their standards and were beaten in Super League’s very first play-off match by St Helens.
The Rhinos reached the inaugural Super League Grand Final where they were beaten 10-4 in a low-scoring thriller by a Wigan side they had beaten twice in the regular season. Murray’s reign at Leeds only lasted another year – one that saw them win the Challenge Cup – but it was a memorable two-year stay for the thoroughly likeable Australian.
Bradford: Stuart Spruce; Tevita Vaikona, Matt Calland, Danny Peacock, Jon Scales; Graeme Bradley, Robbie Paul; Tahi Reihana, Bernard Dwyer, Brian McDermott; Jeremy Donougher, Mike Forshaw, Steve McNamara. Subs: Shaun Edwards, Warren Jowitt, Sonny Nickle & Nathan Graham.
Leeds: Iestyn Harris; Paul Sterling, Richie Blackmore, Francis Cummins, Marcus St Hilaire; Tony Kemp, Ryan Sheridan; Martin Masella, Terry Newton, Darren Fleary; Adrian Morley, Anthony Farrell, Marc Glanville. Subs: Daryl Powell, Graham Holroyd, Jamie Mathiou & Leroy Rivett