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REVIEW: 2023 Redcliffe Dolphins
The Online overthink every detail about expansion while simultaneously Dunning-Krugerising their own understanding of the sport
The Dolphins’ ascension to the National Rugby League was met with a mixture of indifference, ridicule and hand-wringing1. The jerseys, both home and heritage, were ugly, with the wrong colours and the wrong sponsorship integration and the wrong logo design. There was no geographical component to the name - just, The Dolphins - despite ostensibly being the second Brisbane team and taking the City of Moreton Bay’s money. They were going to be located within spitting distance of one of Australian sport’s pre-eminent franchises, who had no previous compunctions about running rivals out of town and (theoretically, at least) had a strangehold on the locals, instead of somewhere more exotic, like Perth. The roster was a mix of has-beens and never-beens and the Dolphins could not land a marquee signing. It was a right mess.
As we were in the process of adjusting to a 17-team NRL, a few things became clear2. There is a stark difference between how the general public approaches the NRL and how the members of the NRL’s online communities approach the league. Due to an excess of time and mental energy invested, the Online overthink every detail about expansion while simultaneously Dunning-Krugerising their own understanding of the sport, its marketing and how to interact with normal, everyday people. The Dolphins were never about appealing to, or even considering, anyone who’s ever used Reddit or Twitter, let alone anyone who knows what a Discord or a Substack is.
In 2022, there were a lot of latent rugby league fans in Brisbane. The Broncos, or any of the other existing teams, just didn’t do it for them. Pick one or a combination of the Broncos’ history, either in annihilating the BRL or trying to do the same to the NSWRL; the other teams being out-of-town and mostly too Blue for a potentially parochially Maroon fanbase (or both in the Titans’ case); Thursday or Friday night games that are inaccessible for a not insignificant portion of south-east Queensland; unlikeable staff and players; an aversion to the patina of success in the absence of its sustainment; and/or contrarianism for its own sake.
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Note that whether the Dolphins were the Redcliffe or Brisbane or Moreton Bay or Queensland or Sunshine State Dolphins is not on that list. Also note that whether the home jerseys looked like vanilla Coke cans was not a concern. The proximity to the Broncos was, if anything, a feature and not a bug. Brisbane, a city of 2.5 million people, probably should have a weekly appearance from the top flight of its favourite winter code and if that’s at Suncorp on Saturday or Sunday, so much the better.
While the roster was at least one legitimate star of the sport shy of anything approaching competitiveness and had the depth of Margate Beach at low tide, it’s also true that the worst team is usually not the one that wins the wooden spoon. In a salary capped and salary floored league as tightly regulated as the NRL, it is the teams that fall apart that taste the timber. For a new team seeking to establish itself with the greatest coach of all time, that was almost certainly never going to be the case. That re-doubled when there was, and still is, at least three Sydney clubs absolutely begging for the opportunity to collapse in on themselves because the NRL is the exemplar of the Iron Law of Institutions.
The Redcliffe Dolphins won the inaugural Artie Legacy Medal - the Arthur Beetson Medal being the name of several other awards - defeating the Sydney Roosters, 28-18, on a perfect late summer afternoon at Brisbane’s Suncorp Stadium. It was the Dawn of the Dolphins. The Phins showed a cohesion and willingness to compete that would become the trademarks of this foundation team. More Signature wins followed this milestone. Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow crossed the line with three minutes to go to put the Dolphins in front of the Raiders in their first home game at Redcliffe. The Knights laid down their arms and the Dolphins ran in tries for fun, racking up a 36-20 score in Newcastle.
The first win, the first win at the spiritual home and the first road win were all ticked off in the space of three weeks, which brought the Dolphins to their first local derby. In terms of club match attendances in 2023, the 51,000 that attended Conflict on Caxton was only exceeded by the grand final and the Broncos preliminary final. In terms of TV ratings, the 1.4 million that tuned in was the most watched regular season match ever. It was a big moment for both teams. The match played out as a tense affair in which it looked like the Dolphins might spring an upset against their more fancied cross-town rivals as late as the 65th minute. In the end, Kotoni Staggs put an end to that but the Dolphins lost no admirers on that night.
A slide down to what we might have expected to be more of the Dolphins’ level followed, copping a 38-12 hammering from the Dragons that precisely no one cared about and a 36-14 hammering from the Rabbitohs that precisely everyone expected. In between these losses, the Dolphins beat the Cowboys, 32-22, in Townsville and beat the Titans, 28-26, in Brisbane in one of the greatest comebacks of all time. The Dolphins were being described with words we normally associate with building materials - as hard as concrete, a steely resolution - but also proving to be one of the most dangerous teams to play, outting a number of frauds in the first half of the year, provided the game was in Queensland.
The results alternated from good to bad: a one point loss to the Raiders in Wagga, a 20 point victory over the Sharks, an eight point loss to Melbourne, a 14 point revenge win over the Dragons. Around the middle of the Origin period, where the NRL gets especially soggy and the injuries and absences started to pile up, so did the defeats. Heavy losses to the Warriors, Sea Eagles and Eels followed and ended any finals considerations. The Dolphins bottomed-out and provided a more comprehensive performance in Vendetta on Vulture, wherein the Dolphins briefly took the lead over the high flying Broncos in the second half, and then snapped the streak by winning the second Brawl on the Beach over the Titans.
While it was now certain in mid-July that the Dolphins would not feature in September, they had been playing with house money since March. A cursory loss to the defending premiers was followed up with a strange run of three close losses in four games: one to the Bulldogs, two the Knights and one again to the Tigers. One final smashing from the Cowboys kept North Queensland’s season (briefly) alive before the Dolphins hosted a Warriors home game at Suncorp in front of 35,000 people to put the sword through their NSW Cup side. A final high note to cover the blemishes of what had been a good season with what would have otherwise been a sour second half.
Injuries and then the absences of Sean O'Sullivan, Jeremy Marshall-King and Tom Gilbert, all leaders of this team in different roles, are as good an explanation for the drop-off in form as emotional exhaustion or the rest of the league catching up to the Dolphins. Connelly Lemuelu has the potential to join a long list of “How could they let him go?!” players from North Queensland, joining Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow, who found another gear to get to Origin and (I think) was beset by niggles following. Jamayne Isaako became what we thought he might have been after 2018, albeit on the wing, a position he never seemed to have an affinity for. Conversely, Isaiya Katoa is exactly who I thought he was from his brief time in the NSW Cup finals.
There was the old man pack, of whom Ray Stone (age 26), was the youngest. Stone was joined by the Bromwiches, Mark Nicholls, Jarrod Wallace, Herman Ese'ese and Felise Kaufusi. While Kaufusi showed a delightful tendency to axe opposition players at random and Wallace showed occasional flashes of why he considers himself a frustrated five-eighth, these old bodies were somehow among the least productive forwards in the league and the most important to their team. They set the pace, they set the tone and they set the effort.
While he’s not quite at starting NRL standard due to his frame, his skills and his age, Kodi Nikorima still had a good season, refreshed by a shift to Rockhampton, then down to Moreton Bay. We saw rather too much of Anthony Milford. It’s a shame that there were few alternatives to Euan Aitken - who needs to find another leg up or hope that the defensive deficiencies of Valynce Te Whare are never fixed to retain his place in this roster - and Brenko Lee in the three-quarters but I mostly remain mystified that Tesi Niu not only is still in the league but was handed an extension.
The next two seasons are about the transition to and then the commencement of the post-Bennett era at the Dolphins. The trope is that Bennett leaves every club a smoking ruin but he is such a powerful force for good football - you can make what you like of his personal decisions - that every club is worse off for his departure. Even if Kristian Woolf is as good as I believe him to be, the absence of the best to ever do it in rugby league is going to be hard to fill. Woolf may have to bank on the roster improving enough by 2025 that no one will credit the difference.
That transition will have to feature an evolution from the simple Bennettian gameplan of maintaining possession, tough one-out hit-ups and holding the defensive line as best as possible - a shield that had numerous rapier-like holes poked in it by the better teams around the seams created by the edge-centre interface on both sides - that relies on effort, cohesion and application, supplemented with pure emotional motivation, to something more sophisticated. The league is transitioning from raw yardage to raw possession to being dominated by teams that can either deploy a lean mix of strength (Penrith) and speed (Brisbane). Naturally, the evolution of the roster and the evolution of tactics go hand-in-hand and that will have to be Woolf’s focus as he takes the reins.
In the end, it was all fine. The prognostications of a wooden spoon were wide of the mark because there were always too many teetering edifices elsewhere. The Dolphins found a Brisbane TV audience and attendances equivalent to about three-quarters of the Broncos’, which is to say the Dolphins were instantly a better commercial draw than all of the non-Broncos teams in the league. A 9-15 season and thirteenth on the ladder was probably unders if anything and a legacy of a season where injuries were too common, exposing a lack of depth that any expansion operation would have.
But it’s also worth considering that the Titans were 10-14 in their first season. In 2007, Gold Coast finished 12th on the ladder with a -150 points difference. This is the Dolphins’ first season and it’s too early to claim a permanent and everlasting success. We will have to see who turns up and in what numbers next season, now that the novelty has worn off and simply not finishing last is insufficient and their immediate rivals have gone as far as the last game of the year, to have a better idea of what course the Dolphins might plot through the remainder of the 20s. It probably won’t be until the 30s that we will understand if they are truly here to stay, to become part of the NRL furniture, and if the 1965 premiership might one day be recognised as on par with that of St George’s, or if they will be wallpaper.
Player of the Year - Isaiya Katoa. I suppose Katoa will have to get used to never getting any attention due to a) not playing in Sydney and b) the Dolphins living in the Broncos’ media shadow but he is 19 and I don’t think he got anywhere near enough credit for being the starting halfback in a brand new and quite bad team and carrying himself with a quiet professionalism and skill. Honourable mentions to the courage with which Jamayne Isaako put his career back together and the hitherto unknown skill with which Jeremy Marshall-King led the team.
Win of the Year - In round 1, the Dolphins defeated the Roosters, 28-18. Until the Dolphins beat the Broncos, it’s hard to think of anything else that could meaningfully compare. Between the custardy brass of the jerseys, the late afternoon summer sun and the result, this game has taken on a shimmering gold haze in my memory. Buying tickets to this game was one of the better decisions made in 2023 and those tickets will only be harder to come by as the club progresses.
In 2023, the Dolphins had feeder arrangements with the Redcliffe Dolphins and Central Queensland Capras. This doesn’t necessarily extend beyond the Hostplus Cup team, however, we will consider the full structure of both clubs as part of the Dolphins’ farm system. While there was an arrangement with the PNG Hunters to offer some NRL-level training to prospects, this is not a true feeder arrangement.
In 2024, Norths will leave the Broncos to join the Dolphins, collating the Queensland Cup teams south of Mackay and north of the Brisbane River, excluding Sunshine Coast who will remain with the Storm until 2027, under the red banner of the Dolphins.
Queensland Cup: 5th, 11-6-3, +121, eliminated in week 1 by Sunshine Coast [season review]
Colts: 5th, 9-5, +248, eliminated in week 3 by Easts
WU19s: 7th, 4-2
Mal Meninga Cup: 2nd, 5-1, won the premiership defeating Townsville
Central Queensland Capras
Queensland Cup: 4th, 12-6-2, +124, eliminated in week 3 by Easts [season review]
QRLW: 7th, 1-6, -100
Colts: 12th, 3-10-1, -144
WU19s: 8th, 3-2-1, +66
Mal Meninga Cup: 14th, 0-6, -146
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For what it’s worth, I never particularly wanted what I imagined would be the Moreton Bay Dolphins in the league. That said, in the absence of any better options and a steadfast commitment from the ARLC to having a second Brisbane-ish team, the Red Fish were the best option available.
Which I thought I had written done somewhere but these must have been now-deleted Tweets. I also made jokes at the Dolphins’ expense because why not.