The Dolphins officially bagged their maiden signing late last week, securing Felise Kaufusi on a three-year deal, leaving 29 spots in their roster to be filled before November 1, 2022.
A host of high-profile stars have used the club as a bargaining chip in recent weeks, with Brandon Smith the latest superstar reportedly set to turn down the NRL’s newest club.
With only a host off-contract elite stars remaining, excluding those still under lock and key for 2023, questions are starting to be raised already over their recruitment, despite only being allowed to talk to players for four weeks.
Despite the Dolphins’ struggles to land the big targets, it certainly hasn’t been quiet on the signing front across the NRL, with at least half a dozen players already signing with rival clubs for 2023.
Wayne Bennett’s eyes will slowly shift to value and key role players as he scours the competition for the club’s opening roster, and there’s sure to be at least one player at each club that the master coach is eyeing off.
While they’ve missed out on Pat Carrigan, Jamayne Isaako‘s name has already been floated around Redcliffe, especially with Brisbane lacking room in their backline for the former Kiwi international.
While he’s equally adept at centre or at fullback, the right wing is where Isaako has made his name, and would solve the goal-kicking conundrum immediately.
The first step in building a club is creating their culture, imprinting the same goals and values in all of their players and staff’s DNA. You need to create a brand for yourself, and there’s little question that for the Dolphins, it starts with building a strong Queensland presence – enter Corey Horsburgh.
The Canberra forward does have some off-field issues, something Wayne Bennett has been fantastic in managing through his career. Add in Horsburgh’s passion and the fact that not only is he a born and bred Queenslander, but he’s a former Dolphin as well.
CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA – MAY 18: Corey Horsburgh of the Raiders makes a break during the round 10 NRL match between the Canberra Raiders and the South Sydney Rabbitohs at GIO Stadium on May 18, 2019 in Canberra, Australia. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)
He’s barely earned a mention in people’s conversations about the rebuilding Bulldogs, but Matt Dufty could well hold the key to their attack, and rival chequebooks. Dufty signed just a one-year deal for the 2022 season, the former St George Illawarra flyer backing himself after a lacklustre season.
Kalyn Ponga has been the man most talked about for the club’s fullback role, but Dufty presents great value for Bennett as he spreads his talent across the board.
One of the more underrated forwards getting around, Braden Hamlin-Uele spent three years in Townsville before making his name in Cronulla.
A Kiwi international, it appears Hamlin-Uele’s minutes could be cut back in 2022 with Dale Finucane set to start in the front row for the Sharks, with Cam McInnes the new lock.
Also forcing Toby Rudolf back to prop, opportunities appear limited for the hulking prop, and the promise of a starting spot up north could be another to lure him away from the Shire.
Gold Coast Titans
He enjoyed a stellar 2021, andJarrod Wallace will look to continue that form in his upcoming ‘contract year’. The Titan fell short of an Origin recall this year, though still managed to score more tries and have both more line-break assists and try-assists than Dylan Brown.
Born and raised just 110 kilometres south of Redcliffe and having played a Grand Final under Bennett in 201, there’s a strong link between the front-rower and the NRL’s 17th club.
Manly Sea Eagles
The whispers were he’d be departing Manly at the end of 2021, but it appears Martin Taupau could still fly the coup yet. A veteran of 201 NRL games, Taupau would add some starch, aggression and experience to the Dolphins pack alongside Felise Kaufusi.
While he would be freshly 33 by the time Round 1, 2023 rolls around, a healthy two-year deal to finish his career, and potentially be the first player to chalk up their 300th NRL game whilst playing for the Dolphins.
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA – JULY 21: Martin Taupau of the Sea Eagles warms up prior to the round 18 NRL match between the Manly Sea Eagles and the Parramatta Eels at Lottoland on July 21, 2019 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)
There’s a startling lack of centres off-contract leading into 2023, meaning Bennett must either discover a new talent, gain an early release for a star still contracted somewhere, or look for value. While the first two options remain possible, Reimis Smith can offer a lot to the budding franchise coming off a career-best season.
After making the move to Melbourne and the permanent switch to the centres, Smith scored 14 tries and featured in all Storm games bar one. His newfound consistency makes him a real asset to any suitor, and would also reform Melbourne’s right edge defence of Kaufusi and Smith alongside each other.
New Zealand Warriors
Similarly to Matt Dufty, Kodi Nikorima isn’t the most high-profile player in his position that has floated across the Dolphins’ radar, but he certainly makes a lot of sense. Debuting under Bennett in 2015, Nikorima was a mainstay in Brisbane’s starting side until a move to the New Zealand Warriors.
While he’s had his moments playing for the Kiwi club, he lacks the structure required to make his mark. Shaun Johnson’s arrival to likely partner Chanel Harris-Tavita in the halves leaves Kodi the odd man out, and a return to the sunshine state is firmly on the cards.
He’s not the man that grabs headlines, but Phoenix Crossland has come on in leaps and bounds, and his versatility leaves him perfect to be Redcliffe’s bench utility in the near future.
Only re-signing for one season with his hometown, Crossland can be thrown into both the halves and at hooker, adding some real value to the utility. Unless he manages to somehow snare the Mitchell Pearce-shaped hole in the Knights halves pairing, there’s no guarantee Phoenix remains in Newcastle past next season.
North Queensland Cowboys
His career has fallen away since moving up north, but if anyone bring the form out of Jordan McLean, it’s Wayne Bennett.
Arriving to the Cowboys in 2018 with a premiership ring and half a dozen Kangaroo appearances under his belt, he hasn’t been sighted in the rep arena since 2018, with a mixture of injuries and form seeing a steep decline in the front-rower.
While many have chalked up his fade as just another star struggling away from the Storm, Bennett loves a fixer-upper, and McLean still has plenty left to give.
MACKAY, AUSTRALIA – MARCH 02: Jordan McLean of the Cowboys is tackled by Marion Seve of the Storm during the NRL Trial match between the Melbourne Storm and the North Queensland Cowboys on March 02, 2019 in Mackay, Australia. (Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)
Like Reimis Smith, a lack of genuine superstar centres leaves Bennett scrambling for a formidable backline. Another former Bronco and Bennett debutant, Tom Opacic was one of the more consistent backs for the Eels in his debut season for the club, notching 21 games, his career-best games played in a single season.
While he isn’t a game-breaker, Opacic’s defence is rock solid out wide, and Bennett could build on that like he has Campbell Graham at South Sydney. Stopping points is as vital as scoring them, and Wayne knows it.
Penrith will go a long way to lock him up first, but young lock J’maine Hopgood has a history up north, playing for both the U18 and U20’s Queensland Maroon sides, despite spending the last five seasons at the foot of the mountains in Sydney’s west.
Growing up a few hours north of Redcliffe in Hervey Bay, a homecoming as a foundation player could sway the forward. Set to build on his five NRL games, the Dolphins would be wise to act quick, his value will only rise the longer the season goes.
South Sydney Rabbitohs
The club was quick to issue a ‘hands off’ notice to Wayne Bennett after he left the club, quickly locking up stars like Cody Walker, Mark Nicholls and Keaon Koloamatangi before they hit the open market.
While Anthony Milford could look to return to Queensland, Jaxson Paulo is the man Bennett would want to target. Nearly 25% of Paulo’s games have come in the finals, where’s stood tall, including that ‘moonwalk’ try in this year’s preliminary final.
A former Holden Cup product of the Gold Coast, Paulo’s future appears in the centres, though a home on the wing in Redcliffe could work as well.
They’re brimming with talent, and with the expected arrival of Brandon Smith to Bondi, it appears Freddy Lussick could be the odd man out for the Chooks. He’s spent a fair chunk of time in the Roosters’ rotation with Jake Friend’s retirement as well as injuries to Sam Verrills, and has performed admirably in his young career.
Having missed Reed Mahoney and now Brandon Smith, hooker is arguably the position with the most limited amount of elite talent spread across the competition, they’ll need to sign a dummy-half soon. There’s such a wide gap between the best hookers and the middle tier, there’s no reason Lussick can’t excel away from the Roosters.
St George Illawarra Dragons
If the Dolphins were formed a year earlier, Tariq Sims may well have been playing there next season. The Dragons have been open about the fact that Sims won’t be re-signed past his current deal, leaving the incumbent New South Welshman contract-less for 2023 and beyond. He could follow his brothers’ lead and head to the Super League, but a chance to farewell the NRL under Bennett could be enough to see Tariq return north.
MAITLAND, AUSTRALIA – FEBRUARY 22: Tariq Sims of the Dragons during the NRL Trial match between the Newcastle Knights and the St George Illawarra Dragons at Maitland No. 1 Sportsground on February 22, 2020 in Maitland, Australia. (Photo by Tony Feder/Getty Images)
He’s not a name many rugby league fans know yet, but Bennett could have Reece Hoffman written down in his little black book. A development player with the Tigers, Hoffman has made a single NRL appearance thus far – a mid-season clash with Bennett’s Bunnies in 2020, scoring a try on debut, yet hasn’t been sighted in the top-grade since.
Versatile between centre and the wing, Wayne will need youngsters to keep the established stars on their toes, and this U18 Maroons star fits the bill.