NRL 17th team bids: Meet the Redcliffe Dolphins

There is a light shining at the end of a long and unlikely tunnel for many disillusioned rugby league fans in South East Queensland. Some have never loved the Brisbane Broncos, ever since they came stampeding into the old New South Wales Rugby League competition in 1988, effectively killing off the golden era of the Brisbane Rugby League. Others just aren't behind them, for reasons of their own, or because the Broncos don't seem to truly represent their patch of turf, lying within such a sprawling region. Whatever the reason, and despite their healthy membership base (which hit a record high of 36,420 in 2018, and has steadily declined since), the Queensland capital would very much appear a two-horse town in waiting.

For those not as familiar with the old BRL and its extended period of basking in the Queensland sun, a quick stat. In 1987, Brothers defeated a Redcliffe team featuring five Test players in the Grand Final, with 25,000 parochial footy fans watching on at Lang Park (Suncorp Stadium- back when it was actually still called Lang Park). The next year, some of the BRL's biggest names; Wally Lewis, Alfie Langer, Gene Miles- to name but a few- trotted out in the yellow, white and maroon of the Broncos, taking their places on the national stage and tormenting NSW league fans on a weekly basis, and not just during the annual State of Origin series. Meantime, Brothers went broke and Redcliffe set about future proofing its enterprise and biding its time, eventually setting its own sights on a place in Australia's top flight competition. Now, the proud club is tantalisingly close, having recently submitted its comprehensive bid to become the NRL's 17th team.

But the feeling among club stakeholders that a place on the big stage is well deserved goes back a lot further than that. Established in 1947, Redcliffe's imposing record of on field success has been cultivated by a hall of fame worthy list of players, coaches and administrators. According to long-serving Chairman Bob Jones, the first bricks of grander ambition were laid decades earlier.

"It all comes back to the forefathers of our club. We were admitted into the BRL in 1960, and won the competition in the sixth season, with the likes of Arthur Beetson and Kevin Yow-Yeh in the side. That set the tone for the club," Jones told ESPN.

Early success proved anything but fleeting, as the Dolphins continued fielding sides loaded with some of Queensland's finest talent, scouted from all parts of the state. People like Chris Close, Wally Fullerton-Smith, Brian Niebling, Dick Tosser Turner- the heads of whom are all immortalised in bronze busts at the Dolphins leagues club- are testament to the imprint made by the red and white jersey on the Redcliffe peninsula.

"We had great success through the 70's and 80's, then by the early 90s we had aspirations to enter the NSW Rugby League competition. It's been 25 or 26 years that we've been really serious about it," Jones said.

That's not to say the Dolphins took their focus off local matters in the 90's. Quite the opposite in fact; they collected six premierships from eleven Queensland Cup Grand Final appearances since the competition began in 1996, making them the most successful team in its history.

Historical success has lent itself to the building of considerable brand power, but it hasn't paid all the bills. Redcliffe's on-field productivity has been accompanied by off-field shrewdness, with Dolphins powerbrokers establishing a diversified business empire that takes full advantage of an 11 hectare block of land, owned by the club, and as Jones claims, now sees them outpointing most NRL clubs for revenue streams and financial security.

"We made some pretty bold decisions in those 25 years about diversifying, which we've done, and will continue to do. You never know what's going to happen with poker machines, so we needed to make sure we can keep going no matter what happens."

Today, the Dolphins Leagues Club, Dolphins Fitness and Aquatic Centre, Dolphin Central Shopping Centre and office space, and the 10,000-seat Moreton Daily Stadium account for an annual revenue stream in excess of $30 million. The combined value of the assets themselves is north of $100 million. It's a combination of numbers that stands to make the Dolphins the richest club in the NRL. More importantly, Bid Director Terry Reader believes it ticks the most important criteria- sustainability:

"Peter V'landys has repeatedly said the NRL will not bail a new team out of financial trouble, they need to be able to prove current and long term viability, which we can," Terry Reader said.

Reader is a former commercial director at the Broncos, and exudes confidence that the Dolphins could stand on their own two feet from tomorrow if required.

"The Dolphins have invested heavily in community, facilities and infrastructure, primarily to prepare themselves for this moment. They are NRL ready," Reader claimed.

"The old BRL was comparable to the NSWRL in the pre-Broncos era. So the Dolphins had top flight football taken away from them after that 1987 Grand Final. Their core reason for operating ever since then, has been to play rugby league at the highest level."

Bricks and mortar aside, the Dolphins plan revolves around a different type of growth, that of the population in and beyond their home catchment. Reader describes the initiative as a true Brisbane NRL bid, one that encompasses the northern suburbs of Brisbane and the growing corridor between the Queensland capital, Moreton Bay and the Sunshine Coast regions.

Redcliffe itself lies within Moreton Bay, Australia's third largest council, boasting a population of 470,000. That figure is tipped to increase by as much as 10,000 annually for the next two decades. Outside of the Bay area, the commercial prospects have excited politicians at every level of government.

"We're going to have 1.8 million people within a 45 minute drive of this place," enthused Queensland MP Y'vette Dath, the member for Redcliffe, as she stands in the Dolphins Leagues carpark (wearing a Dolphins jersey and scarf).

"We're 20 minutes from the airport, 30 minutes from the CBD. It really is the perfect place."

"The Brisbane Roar A-League team have been playing at Moreton Daily Stadium, bringing supporters from all over the country," added Moreton Bay mayor Peter Flannery.

"Even though the Dolphins will mostly play out of Suncorp Stadium, being based and playing the odd game here will provide an even bigger boost for local business and tourism."

Dolphins CEO Tony Murphy is an old school rugby league man, and speaks with genuine passion about the bid's recruitment intentions, and the plan to develop genuine elite pathways for Queensland juniors.

"We've got 800 juniors and 40 teams ourselves, and there's 10,000 registered rugby league players in our target regions,including 17 junior clubs in Moreton Bay alone," Murphy recited.

'"he Dolphins will have affiliations with more than just our own Queensland Cup (Intrust Super Cup) side. We'll look to form affiliations with up to three other clubs and build pathways for local kids to stay in their home state."

Not unlike their own affiliation with the Broncos, which has seen some high profile names either begin their careers or spend some crucial development time playing footy on the peninsula.

"We've had a tremendous run with the Broncos. Kotoni Staggs and Jake Turpin played in our last premiership team in 2018. Before that, players like Petero Civoniceva and Daly Cherry-Evans were local juniors. More recently, the likes of Dane Gagai and even young Reece Walsh have trotted out for the Dolphins."

As for the concept of longtime allies becoming fierce rivals?

"At the end of the day, us and the Broncos both want the same thing. To grow the game of rugby league."

Which leads to the final question. Is Brisbane a two horse town? According to Reader, who spent 15 years turning the Broncos into one of Australian sports most recognisable brands:

"Brisbane's a big city, and it's only got one team. When you look at the commercial markers the Broncos have, they're often double that of any other NRL team."

"And who doesn't love a Dolphin?"