Bigger than just Brisbane: The Dolphins dream comes true

And then there were 17.

The NRL's latest on again, off again expansion project became a sealed deal this week, with official confirmation of what was quickly becoming the games worst kept secret.

From 2023, The Dolphins are in the NRL.

Warding off challenges from fellow South East Queensland bids The Firehawks and The Brisbane Jets, the proud state league powerhouse is celebrating the realisation of a long held desire to play rugby league in the top tier.

"We were working towards this outcome from the early 90's, if not before," Dolphins chairman Bob Jones tells ESPN.

"Some of the club's forefathers from yesteryear; names like Arthur Beerson, Dick Tosser Turner- they had this dream. This is a new beginning, but it's also the next chapter in a story that's been unfolding for the better part of 30 years."

NRL power brokers Peter Vlandys and Andrew Abdo's official rubber stamping of the game's first expansion since 2007 was doing the unofficial rounds from Monday. The word was there'd be nothing official until Thursday, but apparently the Dolphins had received licensing paperwork and other related materials formalising the progression to the national competition. All of this coming after weeks of press declaring them the heavy favourites for the 17th license.

One notable omission from all the reports: a response from the Dolphins bid team.

"The pressure gets bigger when you hear it from everyone but the NRL," admits Dolphins bid chief Terry Reader.

"We were caught off guard. Contrary to media speculation, we hadn't been told (before Wednesday). We were actually working with the NRL last week on a few final things- as were the other bids- but definitely hadn't found out."

Reader is on the phone with ESPN the morning after the announcement. The former Brisbane Broncos Chief Commercial Officer finds the time for a chat, despite having 200+ unanswered messages on his phone.

"It's been a whirlwind," Reader continues. "We got the call at 0905 on Wednesday, a day earlier than expected. And it was a very welcome surprise. Andrew Abdo's number flashed up on my phone. He said; 'Terry, the commission has met this morning to ratify a 17th team for 2023; it's gonna be the Dolphins.'"

Reader isn't crowing over the phone by any stretch. A seasoned operator; he remains well aware of the busy road ahead, and extremely grateful to be in the position he's now in.

"Relief is the first thing you feel," he continues.

"There were a lot of people putting this together. Bob Jones and Tony Murphy (Dolphins CEO) invested a lot of faith in me. They've been involved with the club for 40 and 47 years respectively. For me to come in and help drive that forward for them was a privilege."

"We were always confident in meeting the key criteria - financial viability and diversification, infrastructure, growing the game, boosting participation. We knew we had a strong bid and all the right ingredients. But we were up against very strong competition. All three bids had a great deal of promise, and a strong blueprint to grow the game of rugby league."

Vanquished rivals the Brisbane Jets added to the early reveal narrative with a concession speech of sorts on Tuesday. Bid boss Nick Livermore shared his disappointment with the media; primarily his feeling the Jets weren't afforded enough of a chance to champion their cause to V'landys and Abdo.

"We would like to sit down and have another discussion," Livermore said.

"We've only had a one-hour meeting after the last 10 years of working on this. We've put an incredible, compelling argument forward for the growth of rugby league in Brisbane. If they've made their decision after one meeting, I'd be disappointed."

The Dolphins bid chief paints a different picture; one of an extremely meticulous process on the part of the NRL.

"I don't want to comment on what the other bids say, but what I'll say is that it's the most detailed and granular process I've ever seen," Reader explains.

"We had to lay bare everything about the club and it's finances, viability, growth plans. It was a 400 page submission."

"The bid committee analysed and assessed it against their own criteria. They did a statewide assessment- where people were, who they follow, where a team is gonna work best. It was extremely thorough."

"We had to shore up a lot of concerns from them as well- things like grass roots, female rugby league, indigenous pathways (The Dolphins will contribute $2 million per season to satisfy the NRL's focus on these specific areas), all of these were part of our plan already."

The Brisbane Easts backed Firehawks would no doubt be harboring a similar degree of disappointment to the Jets. Peter V'landys acknowledged the strength of all the bids when he announced the victor, and it was far from lip service. The Firehawks and Jets both brought considerable commercial clout and robust growth plans to the table; the Firehawks in particular being backed by a futuristic digital driven supporter strategy, a 40 thousand member leagues club, zero debt and impressive infrastructure; highlighted by a soon to be complete centre of excellence valued at $8.5 million.

In the end though, the Dolphins bricks and mortar aspect- $100 million in assets including a 11,500 seat stadium, fitness centre and shopping complex, all fed by $30 million in leagues club revenue- eventually proved impossible to ignore.

"A lot had to happen to be ready for this," says Reader. "The delay to the process, enforced by COVID, has allowed us to keep working in the background, to be ready to hit go when and if the time came to capitalise on being the new team."

"We've had the same strategy from the start. All we wanted to talk about was what we already have in place, and show we were offering the best opportunity to grow the game in that northern corridor. We took nothing for granted before it was official."

The successful hosting of a string of NRL fixtures during the COVID-afflicted 2021 season, and a near sealed deal to host the Warriors in 2022, has put the club up in lights at NRL HQ.

"2022 is a transition year," Reader says. "We have the luxury of having the Warriors based at our facilities. It's almost a warm-up rehearsal, to put the facilities through its paces."

Other matters beginning to warm up are the subject of what this team will actually be called when it trots out in 2023. The only guarantee is that it won't be Redcliffe. At this stage, the bid team's decision to simply go with the singular title of 'The Dolphins' is unprecedented for Australian rugby league teams, and has sparked some controversy.

"We want to make sure we've got broader appeal and whether that's a more contemporary look and feel, it's because we're a national NRL club," says Reader.

"We had to be careful about how we name it because we don't want to alienate anyone and we want to make sure we have the biggest reach. This is bigger than just Brisbane, or Moreton Bay.

"The Dolphins will come into the NRL as the only former BRL (Brisbane Rugby League) side to rise from being a community team, to playing in the national competition. We represent the entire rugby league community- we're bigger than just Moreton Bay and Brisbane CBD and Sunshine Coast. We're gonna play games at all those places ... so we represent the whole."

Moreton Bay Mayor Peter Flannery has made no secret of his council's desired name, so much so that the opening remarks of his own press conference included a significant slip of the tongue.

"Council has been working with the Moreton Bay Dolphins- I mean, The Dolphins, for a number of years," Mr Flannery told reporters.

"We would love them to be called the Moreton Bay Dolphins," he continued. "We're the third largest local government area in Australia. We've got 500 thousand people living in our region. All of our discussions with them have been that the name will be up for grabs, once the announcement has been made."

"There's nearly 11 thousand people per year moving here, that's almost double Ipswich. So I believe it needs to be Moreton Bay, it also gives that rivalry between us and Brisbane. The economic benefits between us and the club will be very significant."

All worthwhile points, and a matter that no doubt will spur ongoing debate as the dust settles. But perhaps the most telling commentary around the issue has come from the NRL itself.

"It's important for us that we have a say in this because this is about the growth of the game," Andrew Abdo said on Wednesday.

"For us it made sense for them to be 'The Dolphins' because we're talking here about not just the Brisbane area but north of Brisbane, we're talking about Moreton Bay, the Sunshine Coast. This is about owning Brisbane and not just having a second Brisbane team, but owning the north as well."

The name debate may well continue to rage, and a lot can happen between now and 2023. For now there are plenty of other balls in the air, and for those within the walls at The Dolphins, it's time to get to work.

"We haven't fired all our shots," says Reader.

"We're gonna start rolling things out over the next few weeks- we'll be unveiling the new brand, naming our principal partner, bringing our merchandise to life, and rolling that out in time for Christmas."

As for the all-important consideration of locking in personnel; many of the questions have related to the acquisition of a certain coach; one with well-documented previous experience in building successful clubs in south east Queensland.

"We need to get staff in place in key roles - Wayne (Bennett) is one of them," confirms Reader.

"As soon as it became a reality that we were in the NRL, we reached out to him. Things are progressing nicely: he's excited, we're excited, I expect things to fall into place."

"And there's a hundred plus players we can talk to. We can't speak to them until November 1. Our first priority is to sign a coach."

Terry Reader really needs to get going at this point; those messages on his phone won't answer themselves. Before that though, a brief pause to acknowledge the completion of a 74-year-old club's long journey to the bright lights of the national stage.

"It was a wonderful day for the club on Wednesday," Reader concludes. "And it was a wonderful day for the game in Queensland."