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Never finished bottom four: Bennett faces greatest coaching challenge getting Dolphins off the ground

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28th June, 2022
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Wayne Bennett has never finished in the bottom four as a coach but if he can avoid that fate next season at the Dolphins, it will be one of the more remarkable feats in his 34-year career.

With four months remaining before the foundation squad begins pre-season training, the Redcliffe roster is still severely lacking top-quality talent in the key spine positions.

Compared to the most-recent team to come in the NRL – Gold Coast in 2007, the Dolphins are a long way behind when it comes to signing elite players. 

The seven-time premiership-winning mentor’s teams have only missed the finals five times since he started out as Canberra’s co-coach in 1987 – the 12th-placed finishes at Newcastle in 2012 and 2014, either side of a trip to the preliminary final plus three of the first four years of Brisbane’s entry into the big league.

In his 25 years at the Broncos across two stints, they missed the finals just three times with a worst-placed ladder finish of eighth while St George Illawarra were minor premiers, then premiers before placing fifth during his three years in Wollongong. 

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The Dolphins have 21 players on their books for 2023 and only 15 of them have NRL experience. Maroons second-rower Felise Kaufusi is their only current State of Origin representative while Kiwi forwards Jesse and Kenny Bromwich were the only Dolphins recruits who played in the Rep Round Tests last weekend.

BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA - OCTOBER 27: Wayne Bennett poses for a photo with the revealing of the Dolphins Heritage Round jersey during a Dolphins NRL press conference at Suncorp Stadium on October 27, 2021 in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

(Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

Of the rest, Warriors utility Euan Aitken, Bulldogs hooker Jeremy Marshall-King, Cowboys forward Tom Gilbert, Titans duo Jarrod Wallace and Jamayne Isaako, Rabbitohs prop Mark Nicholls and Parramatta’s Ray Stone, until he tore his ACL, are the only other Dolphins who have been regular first-graders this season.

Anthony Milford is in the Dolphins’ sights and they have been linked to former Warriors prop Matt Lodge but there are very few other NRL players off contract at the end of this season who could move the needle much when it comes to the new side’s prospects for 2023.

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He was coy when asked about the topic of his next contract on Tuesday, which suggests he won’t be re-signing with the Knights.

After missing out on the signatures of a host of signings targets such as Kalyn Ponga, Brandon Smith, Ryan Matterson, Jahrome Hughes, Suliasi Vunivalu and Harry Grant, the Dolphins’ best hope of getting a marquee recruit now rests in one of the other 16 teams running into salary cap trouble and needing to offload a contract ahead of time.

Canterbury general manager Phil Gould last week on 100% Footy lashed into the NRL for not helping the Dolphins enough as they prepare for their entry, lambasting the head office for basically handing Redcliffe the licence and saying do your best.

Suliasi Vunivalu poses for a photo before an Australian Wallabies training session on June 21, 2022 in Sunshine Coast, Australia. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

Suliasi Vunivalu poses for a photo before an Australian Wallabies training session on June 21, 2022 in Sunshine Coast, Australia. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

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The AFL gave start-up teams like GWS and Gold Coast an enormous helping hand with draft picks, multimillion-dollar handouts of extra funding and a lengthy lead-up period to their first match.

With the NRL not having a player draft, it could have given the Dolphins salary cap dispensation – perhaps the new club should be allowed to operate under a higher dollar figure for their first few seasons or a marquee player rule where a star recruit’s wages wouldn’t count.

As it stands, this is the Dolphins’ strongest line-up based on their roster.

The 2023 Dolphins (more to come, thankfully)

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  1. Jamayne Isaako (Titans)
  2. Edrick Lee (Knights)
  3. Brenko Lee (Broncos)
  4. Euan Aitken (Warriors)
  5. Robert Jennings (Panthers)
  6. Michael Roberts
  7. Isaiya Katoa (Panthers)
  8. Jesse Bromwich (Storm)
  9. Jeremy Marshall-King (Bulldogs)
  10. Mark Nicholls (Rabbitohs)
  11. Felise Kaufusi (Storm)
  12. Kenny Bromwich (Storm)
  13. Tom Gilbert (Cowboys)
  14. Ray Stone (Eels)
  15. Jarrod Wallace (Titans)
  16. Connelly Lemuelu (Cowboys)
  17. JJ Collins (ex-Knights, Tigers, Raiders 2016-19)

Young centre Valynce Te Whare and prop Ryan Jackson will also be in the senior squad but have no NRL experience.

Roberts, centre Jack Bostock and hooker Harrison Graham are on development contracts next year.

That leaves 12 roster slots open and a great deal of uncertainty and pressure building over the next few months.

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When you compare how they’re tracking with the Titans in the build-up to their foundation season of 2007, they’re nowhere near the Gold Coast’s quality and that side finished 12th with a 10-14 record.

Scott Prince runs the ball in the NRL

Scott Prince. (Image: AAP)

To be fair, the Titans were given a much-longer lead-in to their first campaign, getting the green light in May, 2005 and they quickly started locking in players after signing John Cartwright to be their coach.

Preston Campbell was the first player they signed on June 21, 2005, with the Dally M Medal winner quickly followed by Dragons international Luke Bailey and Wests Tigers’ premiership-winning duo Anthony Laffranchi and Scott Prince a full 12 months before the Titans’ first match.

Getting that star personnel on the books early gave the Gold Coast, a region which had struggled to attract the game’s best players in its previous iterations, a sense of legitimacy as the new franchise added supplementary squad members.

Titans’ first team in Round 1, 2007

  1. Preston Campbell
  2. Lelea Paea
  3. Mat Rogers
  4. Jake Webster
  5. Chris Walker
  6. Matt Hilder
  7. Scott Prince
  8. Luke Bailey
  9. Clint Amos
  10. Kris Kahler
  11. Anthony Lafranchi
  12. Gavin Cooper
  13. Luke Swain
  14. Michael Henderson
  15. James Stosic
  16. Mark Minichiello
  17. Nathan Friend

Other squad members: Daniel Conn, Brett Delaney, Ian Donnelly, Josh Graham, Josh Lewis, Richard Mathers, Brad Meyers, David Myles, Luke O’Dwyer, Matt Petersen, Smith Samau, Michael Hodgson.

Each of the 29 players who took the field for the Titans in their debut year had already made their first-grade debut and most of the squad was in their mid 20s, which led to the new club making the finals in their third year, going one win shy of the Grand Final in 2010 before bottoming out the following season as the foundation roster started dropping off.

The Bennett factor can never be written off. He’s managed to defy the odds on countless occasions in the past but usually in the representative arena more so than at club level.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - OCTOBER 03: (L to R) Jamie Soward, Wayne Bennett and Dean Young of the Dragons celebrate after the NRL Grand Final match between the St George Illawarra Dragons and the Sydney Roosters at ANZ Stadium on October 3, 2010 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Nolan/Getty Images)

Jamie Soward, Wayne Bennett and Dean Young celebrate after the 2010 Grand Final win by St George Illawarra. (Photo by Mark Nolan/Getty Images)

For the most part, Bennett has overseen club rosters stacked with top-end talent, particularly during his Broncos tenures – this Dolphins squad is shaping up to be the weakest he has guided.

Since the last of his seven premierships in 2010 at the Dragons, he went within seconds of lifting the trophy again at the Broncos five years later and a rare Adam Reynolds conversion miss away last year with South Sydney.

Only Craig Bellamy (five) has been to more grand finals than Bennett in the past 12 years with Trent Robinson, Des Hasler and Ivan Cleary also appearing three times.

Despite being in his 70s now, Bennett still clearly has retained his passion for coaching and as someone renowned for having a long memory, he will be heavily motivated to shape a rival team to the Broncos in South-East Queensland given his bitter exit from the club at the end of 2018.

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Bennett and Dolphins CEO Terry Reader have repeatedly said they want to play the long game and build a club that will have sustained success. 

That may well still prove to be the case but expansion franchises in any professional sport can easily have a stigma attached to them if they aren’t competitive from the outset.

No one expected the Dolphins to compete for the premiership in their first season and only true optimists would think they were ever going to be top-eight contenders.

But they need to be competitive.

Unless they can significantly upgrade their roster in the next few months, the challenge of lifting the Dolphins away from the bottom of the ladder is shaping up to be one of the toughests tasks of Bennett’s career.

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