When Leeds Rhinos vs Bradford Bulls was Super League’s biggest derby

Pix: John Clifton/SWpix.com.

This week, all the talk has quite rightly centred around two games: the Hull derby and St Helens vs Wigan.

The two biggest derbies in Super League contested between four healthy clubs at the moment all on course for successful 2022s adding extra meaning to their derby clashes over Easter and throughout the season with Saints and Wigan set to meet in a Challenge Cup semi-final in less than a month.

However, there was a time when both these derbies played second fiddle to another that Super League sorely misses.

It might be surprising to think about today given that the Bulls languish in the Championship after years of struggle and Leeds are themselves facing the prospect of a relegation battle as they lie 11th in the league with just three league points to their name, but there was a time when a meeting between these two was the biggest game in town.

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.

The derby that began to sway things in this West Yorkshire tussle’s favour was oddly not contested in West Yorkshire but miles away in Cardiff as Leeds and Bradford met in the Challenge Cup Final. 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 go on to win the treble.

Leeds came up just short that day in a classic cup final with Gary Connolly picking up the Lance Todd Trophy as Man of the Match despite being on the losing side. 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 with Bradford edging two classic encounters 18-16 and 22-21 to heap misery on the Rhinos who failed to beat the Bulls once in 2003 despite being oh so close on three separate occasions.

Going into 2004, this gave the derby extra story making their Round Five clash take on added significance as the high flying Leeds truly wanted to get the monkey off their backs. They did just that in another tight affair won by the Rhinos 26-18.

Like the previous year, Leeds and Bradford were clear of the rest as they chased Super League glory and met in the Grand Final 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 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 seven points behind the Rhinos. In doing so, they became the first side outside the top two to be crowned Super League Champions.

In 2006, even as both clubs were knocked off their perch by St Helens, the two would have rip-roaring affairs as they chased the run away 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 Jordan Tansey at the first Magic Weekend gave Leeds a 42-38 win over Bradford in a game where the victor was guaranteed top spot at the end of it.

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 some margin as they chased back-to-back titles.

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 who had one eye on a Challenge Cup semi-final with Warrington resting the majority of their team.

To this day, that is the last Super League derby between the two but we were treated to more magic in this particular rivalry when Championship Bradford dumped Leeds out of the cup in 2019.

Nowadays, these clubs are a long way off being the best in the world as they were officially in 2005 and 2006 respectively and it may be some time until we see them meet in Super League again.

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