Grand Final retrospective | Robbie Hunter-Paul

6 Aug 2022

Grand Final retrospective | Robbie Hunter-Paul

They say you need to lose a final before you win one. And whilst that doesn’t always ring true, it was certainly the case for Bradford Bulls.

This year we celebrate 25 years of Grand Finals and look back on memorable moments from those gone by, speaking to players who have experienced the highs and lows of Super League’s flagship event.

Robbie Hunter-Paul was a cultural leader and captain at Bradford Bulls. He joined the Bulls in 1994 - two years before the inception of Super League – and enjoyed over a decade of success with the club during the infamous Bullmania era.

The Bulls won the League Leaders title in 1997 when the competition was still decided by ‘first past the post’. They reached their first Super League Grand Final in 1999, just a year after the concept was introduced.

There, they were narrowly beaten by St Helens – a team the Bulls had comprehensively beaten in the Qualifying Semi-Final just two weeks previous.

“We had a week off and I’m not sure that did us any favours,” Hunter-Paul explained.

“And I think the outcome of that game [Semi-Final v Saints] didn’t do us any favours as well. We went into the Grand Final a little too cocksure of ourselves. But the Grand Final is a different beast completely.

“It took us a long time to build the mental dexterity to be able to bring our game up another level. We still had to learn that, and I don’t think we grasped that in 1999.”

The Bulls squad was littered with talent. They had household names across the park and larger than life characters who set impeccably high standards. But the week in week out grind of Super League paled in comparison to the arduous battle that took place at the Theatre of Dreams – a place where nothing is given and everything is earned.

“You have to transcend your normal style of play and it takes every singly member from one to 17 that take the field to put everything on the line.

“It’s not one of those games where you can rest on your laurels and let your big game players step up, because the teams that come away with that success – they don’t. It’s every single person.

“We were always there and there abouts. From 2000 we picked up a significant bit of silverware all the way through to 2006, so that tells you the ability of that group of players. But more importantly, it shows you the mentality.

“It’s all about how strong you are mentally. We’ve all seen great teams get through to a final and then they bottle it. They get through to the final and they can’t hold on or go that extra mile.

“That Bulls team learnt how to win. We learned what a legacy team really means.”

Hunter-Paul and the Bradford Bulls didn’t have to wait long to finally taste success at Old Trafford. In 2001, they defeated Wigan Warriors to be crowned Super League Champions for the first time.

To this day, the 2001 Grand Final remains the highest scoring final and widest winning margin in Grand Final history. the Bulls had put the heartbreak of 1999 behind them - and learned some important lessons - to produce one of the most complete Grand Final performances in its 24 year history.

“2001 for me was when it amalgamated together. The 2001 Super League Grand Final – especially the opening 40 minutes – that was the most complete performance I’ve ever experienced in a team.

“Everyone just got it. Everything that we did was for one another. There was no ‘me’ about any of it – and that’s important to understand. There’s no ‘me’ in winning the Super League Grand Final. It’s us. It was so awesome to be a part of that.

“Don’t get me wrong, there’s going to be players that grab the headlines, but those players that grab the headlines aren’t the foundations which it’s built on – it’s built on us. Everyone transcending their form and being on in that one game.

“I’ve never played in a performance quite like it. As captain, it was a joy. It was the most complete 40 minute performance I’ve ever been a part of.”

As if captaining the Bulls to their first Super League Grand Final wasn’t enough, Hunter-Paul did it alongside his big brother, Henry. The brothers partnered one another in the halves that evening and, to make the occasion just that little bit more special, it was their last ever game together.

“That was the last professional game we played together. Henry was heading off to rugby union, so I knew it was going to be our last game. It was special.

“I’m a lot more sentimental than our kid. The only Bradford Bulls jumper I kept was the 2001 Grand Final shirt. About seven years ago, I was at a dinner and Henry’s 2001 Grand Final jumper came up and I bought it. It cost me about 750 quid! But I wanted it because it was the last time we played together. This kid that I looked up to my whole life, kicked about in his shadow and who made me the athlete that I am.

“It was so special that I was able to do that with my big brother. And it made it kind of a poetic justice that it was our last professional match we played together. Incredible.”

Super League celebrates its 25th Grand Final in 2022 and you can be there to experience it. Bring the noise at the Theatre of Dreams and get 10% off select tickets if you purchase before Thursday 11 August here.