Rarely has a team been written off before playing a game to the extent the Dolphins have in 2023.
The first new team to join the competition since Gold Coast in 2007, few have given the Queensland-based outfit much hope this year.
And to be fair to the critics, looking at the squad they’ve managed to assemble, it’s not hard to see why they might have some knockers.
But you know who loves working under those circumstances? Wayne Bennett.
Few can galvanise a team like the veteran coach and there is no one better placed to hold the Dolphins’ hands as they make their first steps into the big time.
The Sporting News previews the Dolphins season below – including their best 17, the key to their success and predicted finish for 2023.
DOLPHINS TOP 30 SQUAD | DOLPHINS OFF-CONTRACT LIST | DOLPHINS ROUND 1 PREDICTED TEAM
Euan Aitken, Jesse Bromwich, Kenneath Bromwich, JJ Collins, Herman Ese’ese, Poasa Faamausili, Trai Fuller, Tom Gilbert, Oliver Gildart, Cody Hunter, Jamayne Isaako, Robert Jennings, Isaiya Katoa, Felise Kaufusi, Brenko Lee, Edrick Lee, Connelly Lemuelu, Jeremy Marshall-King, Anthony Milford, Mark Nicholls, Kodi Nikorima, Tesi Niu, Sean O’Sullivan, Ray Stone, Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow, Valynce Te Whare, Mason Teague, Setu Tu, Jarrod Wallace
It’s no secret that Wayne hasn’t been able to get many of the players he wanted and it’s left the Dolphins’ squad looking pretty thin in parts.
Any injuries, particularly in the spine, may force Bennett to get creative.
The big unknown is the young players – if they can perform up to standard when called upon, they may just surprise a few teams.
The forward pack is chock full of blokes with Origin and International experience, and while some of them may have played their best footy, they ought to have enough guile to overcome that.
Elsewhere, Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow will be a handful at fullback and, if they can get on the same page and playing consistently, there’s plenty of attacking threat on the edges.
Once upon a time, Anthony Milford was a very handy footballer. However, questions remain whether we’ll ever see him reach the heights he did at Canberra and in his early days with the Broncos.
Next to him is Sean O’Sullivan. The halfback is now at his fifth NRL club, having played 32 times in first grade across the Roosters, Brisbane, Warriors and Panthers. 2022 was the 24-year-old’s best season at the level, having filled in ably while Nathan Cleary was suspended.
Much like his halves partner, doubts still persist about whether O’Sullivan is capable of steering a team around the park over the course of a season.
STRENGTHS: Forward pack experience/X-factor
If they can keep their best 17 on the park, they should be competitive. If not, they’ll need some young players to play out of their skins.
There is an awful lot of pressure on Sean O’Sullivan to hit the ground running in 2023.
After several seasons as a backup, the halfback has now been given the keys to the car.
If the 24-year-old can guide shoulder most of the load when it comes to managing the team around the park, he may just open the door for Milford to recapture some of his best form.
The forward pack should give the side at least some decent field position, it will then be up to the likes of O’Sullivan to get the ball to the speedsters in the outside backs.
After a stellar showing in the Rugby League World Cup, teenage playmaker Isaiya Katoa will be pushing for a spot in the Dolphins side to start next year.
Signed on as one of the expansion club’s brightest prospects, Katoa will leave a highly-successful Penrith system and has all the makings of an NRL superstar.
A standout at schoolboy level, Katoa was able to keep Dragons star Talatau Amone out of the Tongan side in the RLWC, which is proof that he is ready to make the jump to first grade.
There is no guarantee that Katoa starts the season in the halves, with both Anthony Milford and Sean O’Sullivan also signed to the Dolphins, but his debut is seemingly inevitable in 2023.
Rounds 1-5: Roosters [H], Raiders [H], Knights [A], Broncos [H], Dragons [A]
The Dolphins are entering a difficult market and will want to make a statement early to legitimise their introduction into the competition.
First up, they face a tough challenge in the Roosters, and while most will be tipping a loss, if they can give their fans reason to get excited about the season ahead, they’ll be doing alright.
Then comes a run of games in which they’ll be desperate to get a win or two – Raiders, Knights, Broncos and Dragons.
You can bet Bennett will have circled round four against Brisbane at Suncorp in his calendar, hoping to make a statement against his former club and announce the Dolphins to competition.
Alternatively, a 0-5 start won’t have potential new fans rushing out to buy memberships.
PREDICTED FINISH: 16th
When most people have you as specials for the wooden spoon, is finishing one spot off the bottom really that bad?
Let’s face it, they don’t have the cattle, but they do have Wayne Bennett.
If anyone can get them going, it’s him. That’s may be the problem – it feels like there’s a lot of ifs when it comes to the Dolphins and over the course of an NRL campaign, not everything is going to go your way, so we’ve got the new boys finishing somewhere down the bottom of the ladder.