Having officially unveiled their home ground of Kayo Stadium, the Dolphins are inching ever closer to taking their bow in round one against the Roosters, although expectations have been somewhat quelled after they have failed to attract some of the game’s biggest stars to their project.
A media circus revolved around Kalyn Ponga for months before he eventually remained in the Hunter, while a conveyor belt of elite talent from Cameron Munster to Harry Grant have also slipped through their grasp.
Felise Kaufusi wants to do ‘something special’ at the Dolphins
Yet despite the lack of a marquee man to pin all of their hopes on, the Dolphins can still call upon a considerable stable of experience in the Melbourne trio of Jesse and Kenny Bromwich and Felise Kaufusi.
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The Tongan international has only just returned from the Rugby League World Cup and isn’t scheduled to start pre-season until January, but the backrower is already confident his new team can rattle more than a few cages in 2023.
“We’ve got good players and a good enough team to try and do something special,” Kaufusi told NRL.com.
“It’s just a matter of trying to gel together and…see how we go. We do have some good players…but I guess no one has got any high expectations for us.
“But for us as a team, and for me personally, I feel like I want to be competitive and push teams.
“I hope they take us lightly and we get them on the back foot and not prove people wrong but come in and don’t just be another franchise team but try to do something special.”
Wayne Bennett is at the helm and has a history with Kaufusi of defying the odds after the pair were involved in Queensland’s shock State of Origin series win two years ago.
Kaufusi was full of praise for his new mentor, highlighting how his ability to connect with his players made the Dolphins a dangerous proposition for anyone.
“I think he’s got a very good poker face,” he said.
“[He’s different from] what everyone sees and what I saw on TV from him. He’s really personable and gets to know you and takes an interest in you and your personal life.
“It’s not just the football, but also off-field as well which I think is part of what makes him a great coach.”
The Dolphins will likely be adopting a siege mentality in 2023
Another player on the roster who knows a thing or two about flipping expectations on their head is Tom Gilbert.
The 22-year-old enjoyed a rapid rise that culminated in a Maroons jersey and a place in a previously derided North Queensland side which came within a whisker of making last season’s grand final.
“I was very fortunate to learn a lot of lessons from the Cowboys last season in terms of people writing you off and sticking it to them,” Gilbert told Fox Sports at the unveiling of the club’s home ground.
“At the end of the day, I think the big thing this club can be built on is in our control. We control how we train and the effort we put into each game.
“Regardless of what’s been said or who we’ve missed out on, there’s a lot of positives about what we can control.”
Bennett has never coached a team that finished on the bottom of the ladder throughout his illustrious 35-year career in the hot seat.
Having been under the tutelage of him at South Sydney, Mark Nicholls noted how Bennett’s aura and ability to build a siege mentality will be prevalent in the club’s initial years.
“To be fair, I think everyone is probably writing us off because we haven’t got that marquee player, which only helps Wayne,” Nicholls said. “I am sure he will use it as motivation for us.”
This is something the younger Bromwich brother also touched on when he recently revealed how impressed he was by Bennett’s presence around the group and talent for tapping into a player’s psyche.
“After getting off the phone with Wayne – you could see how he gets guys going and how some of the teams he has had over the past few years play the way that they’ve played,” he said.
“I was blown away by how Wayne made me feel after those conversations.”
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Young talent is the future of the Queensland club
Bennett will need to rely on this rapport he has with his players to get the best out of a side which is currently being cast in some quarters as a rag-tag bunch of veterans and nearly men.
While the Dolphins have so far been unsuccessful in their recruitment drive for a big name, Kaufusi maintained the young talent they had managed to sign offered glimpses of promise.
They lured Isaiya Katoa from Penrith, with Kaufusi getting a chance to see what the playmaker is capable of while away with Tonga together.
“He’s going to be a special talent and he’s still so young…he was still doing his HSC, so he only graduated when he was over there, he was doing his exams every now and then…he was still at school,” Kaufusi said.
“I think he’s got the world all in front of him…he hasn’t played NRL yet and he was playing against grown men on the world stage. It just shows what potential he has got, and I think he’s got a big career ahead of him.”
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Despite the established stars eluding the Dolphins for now, the club can take comfort in the fact they have an eye firmly fixed on the future.
This is something the last inaugural coach of an NRL franchise – John Cartwright of the Titans – admitted he lacked which eventually contributed to his downfall.
“It’s a balance,” he told CODE Sports.
“You want success straight away so you go out and buy some good, experienced players and as many as you can, and then you’ve got four or five years to build some juniors behind them.
“But the problem with juniors is they don’t always graduate…You’re just so excited about that first year and being successful, I probably just took my eyes of the ball there.”
This is a pitfall Bennett must avoid as he attempts to create a strong roster, galvanise a new playing group and foster pathways for juniors to yield an exciting future in Redcliffe.
It’s undoubtedly a massive job, but one that Bennett has done before with the Broncos. It would take a brave person to bet against him defying the odds and landing on something special with the Dolphins.