If the NRL had promotion for clubs outside of the Telstra Premiership, the Dolphins would be the model.
The Dolphins have a proud 75-year history of on-field success, a strong financial base, proven pathways for developing talent, established fans and potential for growth in a key rugby league market.
It’s what sets the NRL’s latest expansion club apart from the Gold Coast Titans (2007), Melbourne Storm (1998), Adelaide Rams (1997), Hunter Mariners (1997), Auckland Warriors (1995), North Queensland Cowboys (1995), South Queensland Crushers (1995), Brisbane Broncos (1988), Gold Coast Chargers (1988) and Newcastle Knights (1988).
Not since Cronulla and Penrith were promoted in 1967 from the NSWRL second division competition has an established club joined the game’s top tier, and the Dolphins are the first team to do so from outside of Sydney.
Old boys present Dolphins NRL team with jerseys
Yet the Dolphins aren’t mired in their past and have proven to be forward thinking; announcing a succession plan for Kristian Woolf to take over from Wayne Bennett in 2025 before the master coach had even taken charge of his first pre-season training session last October.
Based in Redcliffe, the Dolphins will split home matches between Suncorp Stadium and Kayo Stadium but have no geographical location in their name - a move that will broaden the club’s appeal beyond the peninsula.
“We are the first ever grassroots side from the Brisbane Rugby League or Queensland Rugby League to ascend to the top-flight,” Dolphins CEO Terry Reader said ahead of Sunday’s historic NRL debut against Sydney Roosters at Suncorp Stadium.
The NRL is made up of NSWRL clubs or manufactured expansion teams, but we been around for 75 years.
"We represent the BRL/QRL, and all of the clubs we share a history with - Norths, Souths, Wynnum-Manly, Valleys, Easts and Wests.
“We used to play top-flight football before 1988, when the Broncos came in, and took that away from us.
“Ever since that day the club has invested in infrastructure and community, facilities and people, to make sure that when the chance comes, we could play in the top-flight again and it has happened now.”
Katoa tells his parents he's making his NRL debut
The failure to land Cameron Munster or Kalyn Ponga has left the Dolphins without a marquee signing in their first season to compare with Preston Campbell and Scott Prince (Titans), Glenn Lazarus and Brett Kimmorley (Storm), Greg Alexander and Phil Blake (Warriors) or Wally Lewis and Allan Langer (Broncos).
However, the Dolphins don’t have the same urgency to achieve on-field results quickly as most previous expansion teams due to their history, financial support and location in rugby league’s South-East Queensland heartland.
“Commercially, we are No.2 in the NRL, so we are the second most sponsored club in the NRL already for 2023,” Reader said.
“Before we have kicked a ball or anyone has seen us run out in a jersey, we have had sponsors want to invest in our club and get behind us in a significant way, which I think also shows the appetite Brisbane has for a second team.
“Another thing that confirms the excitement behind the club is that, even in merchandise, we were the third biggest selling team in the NRL for the first quarter of 2022.
“Membership-wise, we are already through 15,000 financial members, which is a good start for us. That has put us in a really strong position off the field, and from that great things grow.”
The kids are alright
Boom playmaker Isaiya Katoa, who played for Tonga at last year’s World Cup, will make his NRL debut in the Dolphins’ No.6 jersey on Sunday and many keen judges believe that while the club missed out on Munster and Ponga, they may have signed a future superstar.
The club has a number of other promising prospects in fellow former Panther, Mason Teague, ex-Steeler Jack Bostock and 2019 Queensland under 18s hooker Harrison Graham on their books who will learn from the likes of Jesse Bromwich, Kenny Bromwich and Felise Kaufusi.
“Wayne has always had that philosophy about the need to have the right pathways beneath and the best kids coming through,” Reader said. “That was a key focus for us.”
“The Dolphins were one of the first clubs in the QRL to put a fulltime development manager on, a long time ago, in Paul Bunn, and then Anthony Griffin took over in that role.
“That goes to show the development philosophy the club has always had, and it is no different now that we are in the NRL – in fact I think that is more important.”
At the opposite end of the experience scales, Bromwich - the Dolphins inaugural captain - will celebrate his 300th NRL appearance in coming weeks, while brother Kenny and Anthony Milford have played more than 200 matches.
Kaufusi, Kodi Nikorima, Mark Nicholls, Jarrod Wallace and Euan Aitken are other experienced campaigners, while Tom Gilbert, Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow and Brenko Lee have played State of Origin for Queensland.
Bromwich announced as captain
England centre Herbie Farnworth and Maroons prop Thomas Flegler have already been signed for 2024.
“We only had 12-months to put our roster together and we could only sign players off contract so we are pretty happy with the guys we have bought in to start with,” Reader said.
"It's been an ethos of Wayne's that we need leaders. We have got players who have captained their country and premiership winners in our squad.
"We have got 15 players who have represented their country and seven players who have played Origin.
“We have had to sign a whole squad in one year, so we have got experienced veterans to kids and guys in the middle of their careers.
We think we have signed some of the best kids in the country.
“Who knows how they will go during the year. There are always players who jump out of the ground each season, so it is exciting.
"Let's not forget that our first signing was our marquee coach. We got Wayne."
The Woolf pack
Bennett’s first year of coaching in the top flight was 1987, when he worked alongside former Kangaroos coach, the late Don Furner, as part of a succession plan in Canberra for him to take over on his own the following year.
However, the Broncos approached Bennett to be their foundation coach in 1988 and while he headed home to Brisbane without making the transition at the Raiders it was a concept the 73-year-old always believed would work.
After being part of a succession plan at South Sydney, in which Jason Demetriou worked as his assistant for three seasons before taking charge last year, Bennett has agreed to a similar arrangement with Woolf at the Dolphins.
“That was really important and to be fair to Wayne, in one of the first conversations we had with him he talked about having a succession plan in place and getting that done straight away so the assistant we bring in is someone we want that can succeed him,” Reader said.
“That was a key part of our strategy to ensure our club had stability and credibility, so if you are a player coming here you know that we have a five-year plan in place.”
Woolf is arguably the best credentialed assistant coach in the NRL, having led the Tongan revolution that re-ignited the international game and steered St Helens to three consecutive Super League premierships.
“A few clubs were after Woolfy to be a head coach in 2023, but he decided that being under Wayne for a couple of years and learning from Wayne before he takes over was something he wanted to do,” Reader said.
“He didn’t do that lightly, he looked at our pathways and what we are doing underneath.
"Right from the word go the club has invested millions in academies and pathways for development from Rockhampton down to Brisbane because the top doesn’t work without the bottom beings set up."
What's in a name
The Dolphins have formed a partnership with the Central Queensland Capras, who will act as a feeder team in the QRL 's Hostplus Cup, along with Redcliffe.
The deal has enabled the Dolphins to spread their catchment area from the Redcliffe Peninsula, which includes Brisbane’s northern suburbs and Moreton Bay, to the Sunshine Coast, Bundaberg and Rockhampton.
It’s among the reasons the Dolphins agreed to forego having Redcliffe in the name of their NRL team.
“We weren’t allowed to be called Redcliffe or we wouldn’t be allowed to play in the Queensland Cup,” Reader said. “[NRL clubs] must have multiple affiliates in the QRL competition, so we have got Redcliffe and the Capras.
“The NRL also had some conditions about what they wanted, and the reality is that when you look at our logo – the iconic Dolphin from the 1970s and 1980s, that has been modernised – it is like the Souths logo.
“It has no words on it but when you see the Bunny you know what it means. That is the goal with the Dolphin.
When people see that Dolphin they know what it means.
The move has broadened the appeal of the Dolphins and Readers estimates the new club will have fans from across Brisbane and South-East Queensland in attendance for Sunday’s historic clash with the Roosters at Suncorp Stadium.
“It is Dolphin-mania in Brisbane at the moment, which is exciting, but there is already a supporter base here and more people migrate to Queensland than any other state, especially to South-East Queensland,” he said.
“They might have grown up being second generation Parramatta fans or Canterbury fans but living in Brisbane they can’t bring themselves to support the Broncos.
"Or they have got a Brisbane-born wife and kids, so now they have a Brisbane side they can support.
“We are finding a lot of that and we hope to get as many people as possible to Suncorp Stadium when we take on the Roosters. It is one of those games you mark in the history books if you are there.”