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Bradford Bulls vs Leeds Rhinos: The biggest derby in Super League

The 2023 domestic rugby league season saw Leigh Leopards, Wigan Warriors and London Broncos steal the main headlines. Leigh, following their rebrand, sealed a historic Challenge Cup triumph, while their neighbours Wigan won their last 10 league and play-off matches to become Super League Champions.

But perhaps the team that gained the most from the 2023 season was the London Broncos. Struggling down the bottom of the Championship for much of the first half of the campaign, the team from the capital put a superb run together under head coach Mike Eccles to make the play-offs and eventually gain promotion.

On their way to sealing top-flight status again, London, who finished the regular season in fifth, stunned table toppers Featherstone Rovers in their own backyard, before doing the same to Toulouse Olympique. The Broncos’ 18-14 win in the South of France was a feat that few could have predicted, especially when Toulouse defeated Bradford Bulls quite convincingly 38-20 the week before.

Prior to the play-offs, Bradford were many people’s outside tip for promotion, with the Championship’s biggest club having their best season for some time as they finished third. The thought of the Bulls being back in Super League has entered more people’s heads of late, especially with IMG taking over the sport in the UK from 2025. Incredibly, it’s now a decade since we’ve seen the four-time Super League champions in the top-flight, with Bradford’s relegation in 2014 the start of a roller-coaster journey in the second and third tier for one of British rugby league’s biggest clubs.

But there is no guarantee that IMG’s introduction will automatically mean Bradford back in the top-flight, as despite the Bulls’ prestigious history and large fan base, they scored 12 points and ranked 14th in the first ever IMG grading ‘league table’ on Wednesday morning. That result brought a mixed reaction among the Bulls’ supporters with work to be done if they are to get inside the top 12 and be in Super League from 2025.

Bradford remain one of only four teams to have won Super League, but they will now be sweating on their future as coming up short both on and off the pitch in recent weeks leaves this fallen giant of a club still trying its hardest to recover from the financial mess that resulted in their fall from grace. Their performance on the pitch next season will be more crucial than ever before.

As mentioned, the Bulls remain in an exclusive list of clubs to have lifted the Super League trophy. It might be surprising for many younger readers to think about that today, given how they have languish in the Championship after years of struggle. Not only this, but for a time not long ago Bradford used to make up one half of the biggest rugby league game in this country.

At the start of Super League we had two main derbies to sink our teeth into; the Saints-Wigan derby was the highest profile, especially as the two teams battled for the first Super League crown in 1996, whilst Leeds vs Bradford wasn’t far behind them. But with Leeds branded as the ‘nearly men’ of the league, it lacked that heavyweight feel to it until the Rhinos became serious challengers in 2003.

Prior to that it was a fixture Bradford had dominated, as they and St Helens took turns to lift the Super League crown in the late nineties and early noughties. The 2000 Challenge Cup Final at Murrayfield was the closest Leeds got to the Bulls at this time, but they would still lose out 24-18 as West Yorkshire made its way up to Scotland.

The game that began to sway ‘the biggest derby tag’ in West Yorkshire’s favour was contested in Cardiff in 2003 as Leeds and Bradford met in the Challenge Cup Final again. Leeds went into the game top of the league and unbeaten in all competitions. A win here would cement them as a real force to be reckoned with, but they were up against a Bulls side who would later go on to win the treble.

Leeds came up just short again that day (losing 22-20), with Kevin Sinfield infamously turning down the opportunity to kick a penalty goal and level the game at 22-all in the dying seconds, but it was the start of a good rivalry becoming the greatest. As the rest of the Super League season unfolded, the two teams would be involved in a titanic struggle for top spot which would be decided by the games between the two teams. Bradford again edged two classic encounters, 18-16 and 22-21, to heap more misery on the Rhinos and finish top. Leeds then failed to make the Grand Final after an agonising one-point defeat to Wigan, with Bradford defeating the Warriors 25-12 at Old Trafford to win the treble.

Going into 2004, this gave the derby extra meaning and in round five a new-look Leeds under Tony Smith got the monkey off their backs as they won another tight affair 26-18. Like the previous year, Leeds and Bradford were clear of the rest as they chased Super League glory, with Leeds this time topping the table. They did meet in the Grand Final this time which Leeds won 16-8 to end a 32-year wait for a championship. This again upped the stakes going into 2005, as did the arrival of Iestyn Harris at Odsal midway through 2004.

Harris was a Leeds legend and had promised to return to Headingley following a rugby union venture, but he instead joined the Bulls culminating in a legal dispute which would not end until 2008. The story behind the derby continued to get more complex with Bradford pulling off a major upset in the 2005 Grand Final to defeat the Rhinos, despite finishing the regular season in third place, some seven points behind Leeds. In doing so, they became the first side outside the top two to be crowned Super League Champions.

In his last game for Bradford, captain Jamie Peacock lifted the Super League trophy before incredibly joining Leeds for the following season. The spice in this fixture and rivalry was greater than ever before and as Saints and Wigan went through transition, the game between these two West Yorkshire giants had undoubtedly become the biggest game and derby on UK shores.

In 2006, things started to change but even as both clubs were knocked off their perch by St Helens, the two would have rip-roaring affairs as they chased the runaway Saints. Bradford edged Leeds at Headingley in the first derby of the season 20-18, but Leeds avenged that loss with a comeback win late in the campaign with a Rob Burrow goal giving the Rhinos a 26-24 win over their nearest and dearest.

Even in 2007, this derby was perhaps the biggest with the two teams finishing second and third and serving up classic encounters. The Rhinos won two games by the skin of their teeth against Bradford that season with Scott Donald’s try completing a comeback win over the Bulls at Odsal over Easter, before a controversial try from a ‘clearly offside’ Jordan Tansey at the first Magic Weekend gave Leeds a stunning 42-38 win over Bradford, in a game where the victor was guaranteed top spot at the end of it.

That game at Magic Weekend in 2007 was perhaps the last truly great clash of significant meaning for both in the Super League era, a game which will live long in the memory for all fans that day given how controversially it ended. However, this year was the turning point for the derby which had been the biggest in the league since 2003. That year saw the first Hull derby in Super League following Hull KR’s promotion and in 2008 the gap between Leeds and Bradford would open up again, with Leeds winning every game against the Bulls that season, often by a big margin, as they chased back-to-back titles and the Bulls tried to stay in the top half of the league.

Bradford’s financial issues would set in over the next few years and by the time the two teams met over Easter in 2012, there were fears it may be the last fixture of its kind. Two years on from that, Bradford won the last derby between the two in Super League, shocking Leeds 20-14, with the Rhinos having one eye on a Challenge Cup semi-final with Warrington a week later and choosing to rest the majority of their team.

Those aformentioned financial issues would see the Bulls relegated from Super League in 2014, with the two clubs only competitive match since coming in the 2019 Challenge Cup as Bradford stunned Leeds 24-22 to bring back memories of those great clashes between the two sides in the mid to late noughties.

Though the sides have met in pre-season on several occasions, there is still a feeling among many, especially in West Yorkshire, that there is a big game or two missing from the domestic rugby league calendar. Despite winning the Challenge Cup in 2020, Leeds themselves have fallen off the title-challenging pace in recent times with work to be done at Headingley to see them get back in the hunt for silverware again.

But the real work is at Odsal, with any hopes of seeing the great Leeds-Bradford derby come back to the fore resting on the shoulders of those in charge at the Bulls. Significant investement is needed off the pitch, while on it there is a challenge for Bradford to go up against the likes of Featherstone and recently-relegated Wakefield next season in a bid for Super League status.

The 2024 season will mark a decade since we’ve seen Leeds take on Bradford in Super League, with memories of those sell-out summer crowds at Odsal and Headingley remaining a distant memory for now. But given the Bulls recent improvement on the pitch and the full introuduction of IMG into the sport now just over a year away, there is a lot of hope in these two big West Yorkshire cities that this once great derby will return to Super League sooner rather than later. When exactly that will be remains to be seen.

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