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Smart Signings: Year one was a huge success for the Dolphins, but replacing their Dad's Army pack might prove tricky

22nd November, 2023
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22nd November, 2023
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With the Finals over and the November 1 contract deadline passed, we can officially declare the NRL’s silly season open.

Into the morass of gossip and conjecture, we will bring sanity, with the relaunch of Smart Signings, our dissection of where clubs are weak, what they need to improve and where they might find it. Expect stats, profiles and insights, with options that are available and realistic. Don’t expect rumours.

Last year, we left the newest NRL club out of the running when it came to Smart Signings – the logic being that we could judge them on the weird and wonderful grab-bag of bodies they had managed to organise in the fullness of time.

Well, here we are, and what do we know? Well, that rag-tag bunch of misfits turned out pretty well in the end.

Our Dolphins angle last year was that they needed to stick with the programme as much as possible and resist the urge to chop and change when the results went awry.

That they did, and they reaped the benefits as a result. Though the club went through 32 players, which is about average for an NRL team, but eight in total appeared four times or fewer.

At the top end, ten played over 20 times, which is incredible consistency across a season, and essentially only Anthony Milford and Brenko Lee were dropped because of form – everyone else from their opening game 17 that beat the Roosters made it all the way to the end of the year still in the side, injury and suspension permitting.

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The central recruitment gambit was to get Wayne Bennett to turn side of grizzled veterans and cast-offs into a team for the first two years, then move on from there as an established force and, you’d have to say that so far, it’s mission accomplished.

Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow, whom the Cowboys played as a bench utility in 2022, is now a walk-up starter for Queensland and Australia and a bone fide star for Redcliffe – and still aged just 21

He was joined in Origin by Tom Gilbert, who excelled before injury, and Jeremy Marshall-King would have started for New Zealand if fit, while Jamayne Isaako did play and picked up top points scorer award for the whole comp.

Kodi Nikorima, Connolly Lemuelu and Jarrod Wallace hit heights few thought they could, and Isaiya Katoa looks every bit as good as people said he would be with a full season of first grade behind him.

With some big name recruits going into 2024, it’s now a holding pattern before the real tough stuff.

Guys like Herbie Farnworth, Thomas Flegler and Jake Averillo provide proven quality and upgrades in the middle and both centre positions, which were noted weak points last year.

The challenge now is finding guys to replace the original, ageing core, because the list of off-contract stars is long.

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Jesse Bromwich, Jarrod Wallace and Mark Nicholls are gone from the pack, a loss of 700 NRL appearances by this time next year.

Euan Aitken, Tesi Niu and Ray Stone are also free to chat to other clubs, as well as Milford and Edrick Lee, who one suspects will be allowed to depart whenever they like.

With those three from the middle leaving, it’s no surprise that the pack is where the next marquee player needs to be.

The Dolphins would be right up there for Addin Fonua-Blake and given their salary cap situation, could have been expected to compete with anyone financially. His stated aim is to return to Sydney, however, so we can count him out.

Instead, there’s a few interesting options that could be brought in.

(Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images)

Tom Burgess played under Bennett for England and South Sydney and would be a huge shout to take the place of Jesse Bromwich as resident old head in the middle, at least for a year or two.

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There has been much speculation that he might prefer a shot at the Super League to round out his career, but Redcliffe would bring more cash and better weather than, say, Warrington, where brother Sam has just taken over.

Rep front rowers are hard to come by, but with Jacob Saifiti unlikely to be extended at the Knights, he’d be top of any list of prime age, proven quality in that part of the pitch.

Any deal they could be done for Daniel, whose contract is perhaps currently overvalued, might be of interest to Newcastle, too, if the Phins fancied both at once.

Let’s imagine a world where Bromwich is replaced like for like by an experienced prop, while Nicholls and Wallace’s minutes going to new signing Flegler.

That would free space on the bench for Kenny Bromwich to move to the bench, with his spot in the 13 taken by a younger, more dynamic player with flexibility across middle and edge, as well as potential to grow into the role.

Enter Brendan Piakura. The pathway from Brisbane to Redcliffe is one that is already well trodden, and Piakura would get the chance to compete with Lemuelu and Felise Kaufusi for a starting spot.

The Broncos backrower is just 21 but has all the pedigree coming through the grades and plenty of size, and his stats have been excellent in limited NRL game time, especially when rated per incident.

His issue in 2023 was lack of game opportunities, with only five starts, and he has limited scope to impove on that with Jordan Riki and Kurt Capewell dominating the edge roles and Kobe Hetherington and Pat Carrigan above in the pecking order for lock. Although the Dolphins would need to act fast on him because he is reportedly close to re-signing at Brisbane.

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Sitili Tupouniua. (Photo by Albert Perez/Getty Images)

An alternative might be Sitili Tupouniua. He’s the sort of chaotic, versatile forward that the Dolphins have already found of use with Lemuelu and Wallace, and assistant coach Kristian Woolf knows exactly what he can do from their time together in the Tonga set-up.

Off the back of a bad injury and way down the list at the Roosters, the 26-year-old could present the sort of dollar dazzler project that is something of a Redcliffe trademark already, with the back-rowers price lower than it would have been prior to his ACL rupture and the emergence of the likes of Siua Wong at Easts.

With a former England coach in Bennett and a former Super League winner in Woolf on the staff, it’s likely that talent on the other side of the world will also come into consideration.

Woolf will know all too well the talents of Matty Lees and Morgan Knowles, both of whom represented England at last year’s World Cup and both of whom have won everything there is to win with St Helens.

The pair are 25 and 27 respectively, so if they are ever going to come to Australia, now is the time, and the hit rate for their type of player is pretty high.

Lees led the Super League for tackles among props and Bennett, when Great Britain coach, was set to pick him in 2019 at the age of just 21 before injury intervened.

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Knowles has long been regarded as the best lock in the competition with three selections in the Team of the Year, and Woolf regularly complemented his extreme competitiveness and toughness when in charge at Saints.

Both have contracts until 2025, but as ever with English players, the transfers can be arranged where there is a will. It would be no surprise if the Dolphins found some.

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