Sitting on the balcony of Redcliffe Leagues Club, the powers-that-be at the Dolphins will be looking back on their first year in the NRL with extreme pride.
Though it ended badly, even the most optimistic would have been surprised that it started so well, and realistically, the club achieved almost everything that could have been expected of them in 2023.
Indeed, most had them as runaway favourites for the spoon, with some even tipping them to go winless across the year.
When they beat the Roosters on the opening Sunday, it seemed like a fluke, but by the time they were going into their first derby with the Broncos in Round 4, still undefeated, it certainly didn’t.
They were 7-5 come the start of Origin, at which point, the predicted problems with lack of depth started to show. The Phins won just twice after that, but in truth, nobody really cared. It was mission accomplished by the halfway point.
Not just on the field, but off it: the Dolphins were the story of the year, with a host of loveable sports tropes running through everything they did.
They were the NRL’s expendables, a host of familiar and popular faces brought back together under a wily veteran.
Wayne Bennett was proved right in signing older blokes to build culture, with the Bromwich brothers, Mark Nicholls and Felise Kaufusi – now rechristened ‘Phin Diesel’ – leading from the front.
He proved he still had his touch for taking talented youngsters who had lost their mojo and turning them around, with Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow and Jamayne Isaako top of the pile.
Moreover, he (and his assistant, Kristian Woolf) had instituted a playstyle that was already a trademark. It’s hard to imagine that a team with fewer than ten matches in its entire history had a characteristic style of anything, but that was true for Redcliffe.
Their complete high, defend hard, pounce on mistakes plan worked a treat as first the Roosters, then the Raiders, then the Knights comprehensively beat themselves, followed by the Cowboys, Titans, Sharks and Dragons.
It’s easy to say that these sides beat themselves, but if it were easy, everyone would do it. The way the Dolphins elevated themselves to something beyond the sum of their parts was exceptional. While it might not have been scintillating to watch, it was undeniable that it worked.
Now, however, they have a problem. Expectation.
An expansion team can be conservative at the start, because any result is a positive and on the days that it doesn’t work, nobody expected them to win anyway.
Wins come more readily, too, because nobody had any tape on how the Dolphins would play and, though they wouldn’t admit it, were probably a little complacent against them.
In year two, however, none of that applies. Everyone knows what the Dolphins are about now, so the element of surprise is gone. Everyone is doubling up on the Hammer this time around.
Fans will want to improve on this year, too, and that brings an entirely different type of pressure. The squad has been improved and if Bennett goes for bash and barge again, punters might wonder if it isn’t a waste of the likes of Herbie Farnworth and Jake Averillo to do so.
The old guard are a year older, too, and while that also works for rookies like Isaiya Katoa and Valynce Te Whare, the Phins can’t afford for their raft of elder statesmen in the pack to decline at the same time.
All these elements conspire to make the sophomore season a lot more complex, and pose huge questions for Bennett and Woolf.
Across the history of expansion since 1982, it has tended to go one of two ways: either the side was rubbish off the bat and got better – for a few, who finished last, it couldn’t have got worse – or they did well, then came back to earth with a bump.
Of the 17 clubs in the NRL, six have come in as expansion sides since 1980, with another, the Illawarra Steelers, merged with St George.
The Raiders and Steelers were first, in 1982, and they finished bottom and second bottom in their inaugural year, before struggling again the year after.
In the next round of expansion, in 1988, three heartlands were added in Newcastle and Brisbane. The Knights ran 13th, fourth from last, but were a lot better for the experience and jumped up in their second year, while the Broncos, essentially fielding a Brisbane comp select XIII, remain the only team to hit the ground running and stay there.
The Cowboys picked up the wooden spoon in 1995 and didn’t in 1996 – progression – but were still 17th, while the Warriors, who were decent in year one, and came tenth but regressed in their second year and, indeed, were outside the finals in each of their first five seasons.
Most recently, the Titans were 12th in 2007, but fell to 13th in their second year and, well, you’ve seen them since.
Bennett could well contend that he was in charge of the most successful of the lot, Brisbane, and point to the planned succession to Woolf as evidence that the ideas will change over time.
The logic will be that they have lost basically nobody from this year, but have added quality in areas where it didn’t exist, with Farnworth and Averillo clear upgrades on Brenko Lee, Euan Aitken and Te Whare, who shared the bulk of the work in the centres over year one.
Thomas Flegler, too, should bolster the middle to allow greater rotation among the older pack, and with a host of those names set to depart at the end of 2024 and salary cap to spare, there’s potential for gradual transition.
What will be interesting is the net effect of that improvement in ladder position. In 2023, Redcliffe topped the mini-league of bad teams, finishing fifth bottom with the Titans, Bulldogs, Dragons and Tigers beneath them.
Above, however, was a huge gap. Manly, in 12th, were a full five points better off on the ladder, which is a fair old amount to claw back year-on-year.
Furthermore, 2023 had some really, really bad teams. The Titans, under new coach Des Hasler, and the Dragons, with Shane Flanagan at the helm, will surely improve.
The Tigers might well still be useless, but the Bulldogs were perhaps artificially low given their injury crisis at the start of the year and have strengthened again as they flip their roster around.
Even higher up the ladder, the logjam that built late into the season ended up with three of 2022’s preliminary finalists missing the eight entirely. You’d expect them to be better next time around.
Bearing all those factors in mind, it might be a question of Redcliffe wondering what success looks like in 2024.
If they maintained 13th place but did so more consistently across the season, rather than frontloading their wins, would that be progress? If they won ten games, improving on their 9-15 record in 2023, would it matter where they finished on the ladder?
Maybe the best policy is to hope to maintain trajectory. The packed houses, the underdog spirit and the feeling that the Dolphins are everyone’s second favourite team have to remain – even if that was taken over by the Warriors in the latter stages of the season.
As many within the organisation have been quick to point out, this club are here for the long haul and their first team – or, as it happens – their second might bear little relation to that which is ultimately remembered.
That Titans team of 2007 is known for Scott Price and Preston Campbell, but very few will recall Richie Mathers, Clint Amos or Brett Delaney as club legends. They were just the guys that were there first.
The first season won’t matter once the second kicks off. The difficult second album will be exactly that, difficult. But the long-term trajectory will still be the most important thing, and that goes a lot further than results.