Dawn of The Dolphins
5 March 2023 - Redcliffe play Sydney in round 1 of the NRLM season on Sunday afternoon at Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane
My journey to Suncorp usually begins somewhere in the western end of Spring Hill, depending on where I can find a car park just outside the restricted parking area delimited by council around Lang Park. I walk down Petrie Terrace from the Normanby, past the old Tibetan restaurant whose continued operation is a source of bafflement, the pastel pink Arts Theatre where I saw Jurassic Park: The Musical, the sesquicentennial Princess Row townhouses and Love and Rockets’ vagina-themed footpath mosaic and the adjacent church. Across the road is Hardgrave Park, a splash of green unpleasantly wedged between two of inner Brisbane’s busiest roads that mostly seems to exist to provide streetside parking. A little further afield through the trees is Roma Street train station.
The closer one gets to Caxton Street on game day, the more rugby league fans one sees. It starts with the odd cap sighting, then there’s a tiny flow of scarves and jerseys and finally a stream of similarly chromatically clad people. A queue often forms at the lights outside The Barracks as people wait for an opportunity safely cross Petrie Terrace. On a typical Thursday or Friday night, the final ebb of Brisbane’s peak hour traffic passes through the intersection as commuters flee the city for home in the northern and western suburbs.
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It’s as good a place as any to gauge the mood of the punters. If the Broncos are the home team, maroon and gold predominates with a seasoning of opposition colours, although the precise ratio will vary depending the relative merits of each side. Over the last few years, the absence of fans at this location at only an hour before kickoff has made me wonder if I’ve gotten the right night for the game. I’m yet to be wrong but some Broncos games have been so sparsely attended - dipping below 20,000 - that Caxton Street remains open until near full time and life in Milton and Paddington continues as if nothing is happening, instead of grinding to a hugely inconvenient and noisy halt for a few hours, as is right and proper.
Today, it’s a Sunday afternoon and the traffic is a relative trickle. It’s the first game of the Dolphins’ NRL tenure and the queue is brimming with red, white and vanilla Coke gold. The Dolphins’ fans, freshly minted and resplendent in brand spanking new jerseys, are here. I expected fewer people and a far more neutral palette but it’s clear that the Redcliffe side has found an enthusiastic supporter base, one eager to establish themselves in the league.
The Lord Alfred Hotel, possibly one of the worst run pubs in all of Brisbane, has made itself as the Dolphins headquarters. Further down the hill towards Suncorp, the Caxton Hotel remains a hotbed of Broncos and Queensland paraphenalia. It remains to be seen if the Dolphins will make in-roads into this territory over time, should they prove to be successful and worthy of mounting jerseys on the wall, or if the NRL’s Demilitarised Zone, established at the Gambaro properties that sit astride Caxton Street, will limit incursions.
Walking down a sunny and closed Caxton Street is one of a rugby league fan’s great pleasures, unless you are the New South Wales team bus. There is the slightest hint of Magic Round. Sure, most seem to be sober and the pubs seem relatively civilised but there’s a diverse mix of people, including a not insubstantial number of people who are clearly not fans of either the Dolphins or Roosters and have come out of curiosity to see the new team, or to witness history being made, or to see if the Roosters win by 20 or by 30, or a mix of all three.
We mostly sidestep the pretty young women handing out signs with “TRY” on one side and the details of Honey Bs on the other. I would later learn that Suncorp security confiscate these signs at entry due to the the strip club logo. Perhaps if Honey Bs stumped up the same cash as Telstra or Chemist Warehouse it wouldn’t be an issue.
The Dolphins have set up a fan zone in front of the mural of Broncos heroes at the northern end of the stadium. Phinnyland looks a little sad with noticeable room for improvement but if that’s the worst thing that happens on the first day, that’s hardly the end of the world. More importantly, Dolphins specific merchandise sheds on the concrete plaza are doing a roaring trade with a line a dozen deep, waiting in the sun for the opportunity to shell out $170 for a jersey.
Speaking of our solar friend, the sun beat down on the eastern stand as it is wont to do for afternoon games. The weather outside the stadium is a pleasant warm March afternoon with a lingering summer humidity that refuses to abate into a crisper autumn. Inside the stadium, the Budget Direct red fins became fans for the sweltering crowd, a sea of bright red flapping flippers.
This was useful as the crowd didn’t seem to know what to do with their hands. The pre-game recitation of the Dolphins lineup yielded no reaction from fans or neutrals. The early phases of the game were extremely quiet, almost as if the home fans were expecting a belting and didn’t want to get too excited too early, lest they get embarrassed by their association with this new team that would inevitably struggle to find its feet in 2023.
The first try came in the sixteenth minute and inched the vibe slightly higher. A darting run from dummy half by Jeremy Marshall-King found a gap in the Roosters line that would not normally exist, before Marshall-King drew in James Tedesco and offloaded to Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow to score the NRL Dolphins’ first ever try. But it felt like a fluke, rather than a sign of things to come and was greeted tepidly as the home crowd waited for the other shoe to drop.
As you would know by now, the other shoe never dropped. Felise Kaufusi turned into a murderer, axing Roosters left and right. When Mark Nicholls crossed just before half time, there was the barest whiff that maybe, just maybe, they could do this.
Two almost identical and laughably easy tries for Jamayne Isaako in the third quarter made it clear that the Roosters were not going to win this. A chant of “Redcliffe! Redcliffe! Redcliffe!” rang out, creating a headache for those responsible for the Dolphins’ branding and warming the hearts of the rest of us. Catharsis.
After an off-season bagging the very same branding and several years of completely inept management at the league’s head office and a god awful pandemic, a result like this restores one’s faith in the sport that it is still capable of creating magic. It’s not often you get to share a singular emotional experience with over 30,000 people. There are few avenues to do so in our modern secular society outside of big sporting contests and concerts for A-list musical acts and even fewer still now in a post-covid world. Everyone that was there that day will remember what happened and can tell their kids and their kids’ kids about it. It was a special moment that will not come again any time soon. It is a reminder that this is why we play the games and why we watch. More importantly, as we all suspected, if the Dolphins win, nothing else will matter.
While talk of finals is still absurdly premature, even now as one of two 2-0 teams in the NRL, the Phins have claimed their first win and should be looking to assemble a resume of six, seven or eight more. If that resume can include not just knocking off the dregs of the competition but the occassional win against a Queensland rival or a big Sydney team, that will go a long way to weaving this team into the sporting landscape and the city’s fabric.
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