From being predicted to not win a game to legitimate disappointment at missing the top eight, the Dolphins definitely made a splash in their first foray into the NRL.
Enjoying a growing wave of home support and shaking up the competition with a number of thrilling upset wins, the Dolphins well and truly announced their arrival with style and laid the platform for further growth to come.
The first expansion team to enter the NRL since the Titans in 2007, a key contributor to the Dolphins' early success was their history, existing since 1947 within the Brisbane Rugby League competition. The Redcliffe Dolphins would go on to become the most successful club in the Queensland Rugby League’s statewide competition, winning six premierships from 11 appearances.
While there were queries about how the NRL Dolphins of no fixed address would resonate with their ‘local’ fans, the new side gained an average home attendance of over 25,000 across three home grounds in South East Queensland, as well as building a membership base of more than 30,000. Their television audience was also strong, recording on average the fifth highest overall viewership.
Their first derby match against the Broncos in Round 4 saw 51,047 fans converge on Suncorp Stadium in the highest non-final attendance of 2023 – confirming two key things.
Firstly that Brisbane, the city, was ready for another NRL team.
And secondly that Brisbane, the established and storied franchise, could continue to grow alongside the NRL newcomers who were ready to make a splash.
“What  backs up is that the people of Brisbane and South East Queensland for that matter, wanted another team,” Dolphins CEO Terry Reader said.
"Our numbers show that and we couldn't be more thankful to the people who've got behind our club.
“A lot of people took chances on getting on a new team; staff, players and fans for that matter. But we like to think that they've got value out of jumping on board with the Dolphins."
When it comes to expansion teams, questions of depth are always asked.
Lengthy suspensions and injury layoffs saw the club debut nine players, equal with the Bulldogs for the most of any team, as their depth was tested all year.
One of those to debut was hooker Harrison Graham, who was also one of the first signed to the club on a development contract following a breakout season with the Wynnum Manly Seagulls.
Running out for his first game in Round 17 and going on to play six games, Graham said the chance to make his debut came as a surprise, given he had missed the early stages of the season after injuring his MCL in the Round 1 Pre-Season Challenge match against the Cowboys.
“For my debut, I was stoked with the one game after coming off the knee injury and I was just happy with the one game and then ended up playing five more after that one,” Graham said.
“I was over the moon and they were bonuses and it was just all part of my development process. Hopefully I can build on that in the next year.
“Making my debut was definitely a big surprise after the injury ... but when they announced I was making my debut because Jeremy [Marshall-King] was out, I was obviously gutted for him, but I was stoked that I got to make my NRL debut.
Gilbert confident in 2024 return
“This first season, I loved it, loved every moment of it. There’s a great bunch of blokes here at the club. Everyone wrote us off, but we knew inside that we would put our best foot forward, put all the effort out on the table and that's what we did.
“We've got to keep our heads high and be happy and proud of the year we've had.
“We've had 32 players represent the club this year and heaps of NRL debuts in that; there's probably a few boys that were unfortunate to not get a game but I'm sure they'll get one in the next year and then we'll just build on it as a club."
Dolphins in the spotlight
While progress was being made on-field to complement the strides being taken off it, the club were also celebrating plenty of representative selections including that of classy back Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow and pivotal forward Tom Gilbert in the Queensland State of Origin squad.
Unfortunately for Gilbert and the Dolphins, he dislocated his shoulder in the series opener – an injury that required surgery and wiped him out for the rest of the season in an absence that was sorely felt.
Conversely, Tabuai-Fidow’s star continued to rise and he was rewarded with selection firstly in the Prime Minister’s XIII team, followed by a Test debut for the Kangaroos at the Pacific Championships.
Overall, the club had players or staff represent almost every nation involved in either the Pacific Championships as well as the historic Tongan tour of England.
Finals focus far from a fantasy
The Dolphins are well aware that with raised expectations for the year ahead – having been ensconced in the top eight until Round 15 – the onus will once again be on them to produce on-field in 2024.
Showing the kind of mindset that compelled Bennett to name him the club’s inaugural captain, Jesse Bromwich spoke following his side’s last round win against the Warriors, sharing his disappointment at missing the finals, but also his pride in what the side had achieved in their first year.
“It’s hard when you don’t make finals to really celebrate the season, but we did do some really good things on reflection,” Bromwich said.
“Round 1, coming out and playing a really good side, and running out for the first time at Suncorp and I still remember, we had board members after the game in tears.
"How emotional that was; it was one of the most emotional wins I have ever been a part of, so things like that were really good.
“The support, the whole 'Phins Up' has really taken off this side of Queensland, I think that’s been a big part of the Redcliffe area now.
"It’s really hard to celebrate the year not making finals, but for our first year, I think there were some really good moments; (however) throughout the year, we had plenty of moments that lost us the game that we didn’t learn from.
“It’s been a huge year in terms of our fans really supporting us, so it’s been really good and we have enjoyed having them out there.”
Growing and developing the Dolphins' pod
Before a ball was kicked, critics were pointing to the lack of a marquee signing to lead inspire the Dolphins to any meaningful wins.
While their initial additions were experienced and reliable forwards like Jesse Bromwich and Felise Kaufusi, the club also took gambles on younger names looking for an opportunity to play more consistent football.
Players like Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow unleashed a new level to his game and a future captain in Gilbert showed some of the older heads how to get things done.
The ‘Bennett factor’ kicked in and players who had perhaps lost their way at other clubs found their best football again when reunited with the super coach.
Jarrod Wallace, Kodi Nikorima and Anthony Milford have all experienced some of the best moments in their careers playing under Bennett, but no-one could have predicted the stunning re-emergence of Jamayne Isaako.
Isaako tributes family in claiming Arthur Beetson medal
His new-found confidence as a Dolphin saw him sweep all the club's major awards and also became the first player since Mal Meninga in 1990 to top both the try-scoring and point-scoring lists on the way to being named in the Dally M Team of the Year.
Reader didn't shy away from the inherent first-year challenges of recruitment, made harder with a limited window to sign players. That has not been the case for next year, however, with the club having cap space available to chase new players.
Having secured representative recruits Thomas Flegler and Herbie Farnworth from rivals Brisbane, as well as bolstering their backline options with centre Jake Averillo, the Dolphins are building an impressive-looking squad who will view making the finals in 2024 as a bare minimum requirement.
“We have the number one coach, we signed an icon on day one when Wayne became the coach, but we also found recruitment really hard,” Reader said.
“We're still looking at how we can improve our squad from what's available. More importantly, we do have our own affiliations, which unearth other players, which you saw this year when we had some play first grade for the first time.
"We made sure we brought people in who were going to do the job that we wanted to and were going to be the right fit for our club. We now have some unused salary cap space and we're in a pretty good position from that point of view.
“There's a lot of playing depth in Queensland, we've seen that and what the Dolphins have also shown is apart from energising the comp and bringing a bit of fun back, they've also evened it.
"We have never had a closer comp as we have this year."
Flegler eyeing leadership role in Dolphins move
Twelve months on from the Dolphins' first pre-season training sessions, further expansion is again on the menu for the NRL in the immediate future.
“Growth is absolutely at the forefront of the commission's focus and they've said all along that they want to invest in growth and growth in men's and women's teams,” NRL CEO Andrew Abdo said. “Moving from 17 to 18 is our next step.
“We're hard at work at looking at when the right time is for that and how that all fits together.
“Obviously, we've had huge amount of interest, not just from our fans in PNG, but fans across Australia and New Zealand and the Pacific and that's great for our sport.
“To be in a situation where there's huge demand and the commission will think carefully, look at all the opportunities that lie ahead of us and then start planning for what their growth looks like.”