The year was 1978. The Redcliffe Dolphins, who had entered the Brisbane Rugby League just 19 seasons earlier, were a decade removed from their first and only premiership, won on the back of future immortal Arthur Beetson. The club, the most remote in the BRL with services like buses barely existent, had been granted a lease on a garbage fill. The Dolphins just wanted a home.
Building that home was not easy. There was no power. Nothing resembling amenities expected at a football ground. The club did not even have the benefit of gravity to get sewerage sorted. They were hardly the beginnings of something grand but some four decades later the Dolphins are the newest team in the NRL, a remarkable achievement for a club that has built so much out of so little.
After a period of both expansion and contraction that dominated the 1980s and 1990s as the competition nationalised and then rationalised, only one team had previously been added to the competition during the NRL era. While the Gold Coast Titans have not enjoyed a lot of stability or on-field success, their inclusion has solidified a traditional heartland that had become vulnerable.
The addition of the Dolphins does much the same but with history, in-built support and exceptionally strong finances, at least by rugby league standards.
There has been some criticism of the NRL adding just a single team and doing so in what is unquestionably a rugby league heartland. It is criticism that fails to account for what the Dolphins will add as well as how it sets the league up to expand its footprint into the future.
It has been nothing but history and a rugby league mentality that has seen so few teams located in Queensland, with Brisbane having just two teams for three seasons from 1995-97. The BRL was a strong competition prior to the Broncos joining the “Sydney premiership” in 1988 and from that point forward the Broncos have, naturally, opposed a second Brisbane side. It took the game’s first strong leader in Peter V’landys to drive a change that should have happened a long time ago.
The choice of the Dolphins was, despite three bids, the only decision the NRL could make. Bringing in an established club has significant benefits including a membership base that includes 30,000 Leagues Club members, an entrenched history and an asset base that is expected to make them the richest club in the NRL when they join, leapfrogging the Broncos. The club owns Moreton Daily Stadium, a boutique ground that will serve as a training base and suburban playing ground. A $50m bank guarantee that was required by the NRL to ensure they would not require funding in the first five years confirms the financial stability the Dolphins bring, something incredibly unusual for an expansion team to bring.
This is a financially stable team with a rich history. The club has won nine BRL/Queensland Cup premierships – including seven in the last 25 years – and played in 21 grand finals. Immortal Beetson played his first top-shelf football with Redcliffe in 1964 and started a parade of greats to have played for the club including Chris Close, John Ribot, Wally Fullerton-Smith, Mark Murray and Greg Oliphant while it has produced juniors like Daly Cherry-Evans and Petero Civoniceva.
The geography of Redcliffe should not be underestimated either. Of the three Brisbane bids, the Dolphins are the team who will cannibalise Broncos’ support the least. They cover off not only the north of Brisbane but the corridor leading up to the Sunshine Coast that has been an area the NRL has eyed and ranks inside the top 10 of largest growing local government areas in Australia. The Dolphins have already indicated that they will not use the name Redcliffe for the NRL team, indicating that they intend on being a team for not only the northern suburbs of Brisbane but for the Sunshine Coast as well.
Building on the impressive financial and geographical advantages will be the likely appointment of Wayne Bennett as the club’s inaugural coach. Bennett was the singular most important figure in turning the Broncos into a powerhouse, optimising many of the advantages the Dolphins will have.
The Dolphins are obviously well placed to make an impact and make an impact immediately in the NRL. The wider benefits though should not be underestimated. News Corp have already agreed to boost their television deal to the tune of $75m over the next five years despite the sole addition of the Dolphins not allowing for an extra game. This also helps set the NRL for further expansion in the next few years to bring in that extra game in time for the next television deal that will expire in 2027. There are benefits to the NRL of not introducing two teams at once and the Dolphins set-up suggest they are a risk-free option while the league looks at options to expand their footprint. Perth is the most likely option and any franchise in a non-traditional area will need significantly more financial support from the league. The strategy of the NRL regarding expansion is sound.
This is a historic week for the NRL. It is a historic week for Redcliffe. And this is a decision that the league will not regret.