Genuine history beckons on Woolf's Dolphins watch

The word 'historic' is thrown around a lot in sport. There are a lot of historic days, historic nights, historic encounters and historic achievements. There are also historic milestones reached and historic records broken. Historic success, historic failure, historic hauls, and historic droughts. It goes on.

This week an occasion with a genuine claim to the oft-used term will unfold in the heart of Brisbane. The NRL's newest team is being formally introduced to the rugby league world, despite having 75 years of local history behind it. After all the talk of financial security, proven pathways, and growth potential, the Dolphins embark on a long-coveted elite journey.

The selling of memberships, merchandise and the newly minted team song will retreat into the background and - whether they like it or not - football will do the talking. They're widely tipped to struggle, but who can truly know whether the Dolphins' maiden season will fall on the good or bad side of rugby league history?

More on that later.

There's been so much talk about the Dolphins roster ahead of the historic stoush with the Roosters at Suncorp Stadium, March 5th 2023. A season eve raid on the Broncos ranks stole the show this week, with CEO Terry Reader publicly hinting there'll be 'more to come' on that front. Amid all of it, is one of the club's most important signings. A guy who'll have a great deal of influence on club fortunes, yet will never lace on the boots and trot out in the red, white and gold/ banana/ caramel playing strip.

It was late 2022 and Kristian Woolf was completing his coaching commitments with St. Helens in the UK, as the embryonic Dolphins NRL franchise was hogging headlines for its inability to land a marquee recruit.

"I was able to be removed from all of that," Woolf tells ESPN.

"I wasn't involved in all the who's coming in, who's not coming. But what I've really liked is there's been no panic; not buying the wrong players. There's a real feeling we're gonna get this right for the long term."

The Mt Isa born, 20 game Tonga coach described his decision to leave the UK as 'not easy'. The same description could probably apply to the plight of the Dolphins at the time, and after two title winning years with the Saints, one might wonder why Woolf didn't opt to stay on.

But the difficult decision had been made much earlier.

"It was a long time ago," the 47-year-old says.

"I actually got the phone call from Wayne in February 2022. It was a good conversation, I liked what he was getting to, and where he saw me fitting in. There was no rush on a decision."

Despite the apparent struggles to land a marquee recruit, Bennett's sorcery was well at work in an arguably more important long term department.

"What he said stuck with me," Woolf admits. "It was a conversation I really enjoyed, and one that planted a bit of a seed, about the excitement of what was a once in a lifetime opportunity."

An historic opportunity, perhaps?

Woolf signed on as a Bennett Lieutenant, joining Nathan Fien alongside the supercoach as the Dolphins roster finally came together for its historic pre-season. Captain Jesse Bromwich has described the vibe as weird, Felise Kaufusi has described it as surreal. For as much as any pre-season will always be about pain, slog, combinations and cohesion; this one was different.

Woolf reflects on the unusual nature of the summer training block.

"The number of times I've been out on the field, and someone's asked - 'what should we call this play, or that play?' - I haven't got an answer for them, they don't have an answer, so we figure it out along the way."

"It's obviously been a fresh start. We're going to improve on this roster over time, but at the same time we're very happy with the team we've got."

There's been no shortage of noise about Woolf being the heir apparent to the 73-year-old Bennett; ascending after serving an apprenticeship for the club's first two seasons. The now obvious strategy of building a club to eventually become a sustainable force, and not an overnight success, plays perfectly for Woolf. As does playing second fiddle to Wayne.

"He (Wayne) has given us a lot of responsibility, myself and Nathan." Woolf says. "At the same time, he's got things he wants done a certain way. His record speaks for itself, and he's a bit different from other coaches. It's been good to see that first hand."

Sean O'Sullivan was confirmed as the Dolphins inaugural halfback five days out from their season opener. At the same time, Anthony Milford was consigned to missing the historic occasion, and berated (via a media statement) by his coach for not appearing to want it enough (cruising through life). It's a common criticism for Milford, and has been for as long as many (especially Broncos fans) can likely remember. In his stead, Isaiya Katoa lines up for an historic debut; a reward for a pre-season of wanting it, and touches of elite potential across two trial games.

It was a revelation the teenager admits had him shaking.

"Wayne was playing his games as usual, he didn't even tell me, he was kind of announcing the team and my name was called out," the 19-year-old recalls of the moment his debut was abruptly confirmed. Cue an emotional video released by the club, showing Isaiya informing his proud parents. It's a feel good story and another brick in the wall of the Dolphins future focus.

Katoa's raw, untested ability has been honed in the Penrith system and polished by Bennett. It's an exhilarating selection; albeit one that means the job of his fellow former Panther O'Sullivan has grown more complex.

"I can't wipe the smile off my face," the apparently undaunted O'Sullivan tells ESPN.

"I really care about this footy club and what we're creating. I've given it (pre-season) my all, and I hope my footy reflects that."

O'Sullivan has proven his sharpness when deputising for Nathan Cleary in the past. He's not an understudy anymore though. How does that sharpness play out over 27 rounds in the glare of the wider Brisbane bubble? Like Woolf, there was certainly an argument for him staying put at the foot of the mountains; where the warm bask of NRL glory bathes all who drape themselves in Panthers black.

"It was (the Dolphins offer) midway through the year. It actually did take me a while to work out what I wanted to do," the 24-year-old says.

"What really stood out was that I wanted to be an NRL halfback. The next part of it was who I wanted to be coached by. Wayne Bennett ticked every box."

So the supercoach has lived up to the hype?

The non wipeable smile widens.

"I think he knows I'm a little bit scared of him. I've been watching footy since I was a little kid. He's kind of a God-like figure to me. I get to walk into work every day, and you know, he's my coach."

"I know what he needs me to do and I will try really hard to do it for him."

The late, great, Arthur Beetson will be watching from somewhere beyond, when two of his beloved former clubs trot out for round one. A staunch Rooster was Artie, but his history in Redcliffe is arguably stauncher. Australia's first indigenous captain began his journey with the Dolphins, when he moved from the regional Queensland town of Roma in 1964. Twelve months later, he was part of the club's first premiership winning side.

It would be a brave person to back in a Dolphins' NRL premiership in 12 months (wouldn't that be historic?) but big Artie would undoubtedly have endorsed the building blocks assembled for the maiden campaign. Looking primarily to Beetson's preferred theatre - the engine room - the Dolphins bring much promise. A glaring lack of defensive resolve in the 40-16 NRL Pre-season Challenge drubbing by the Gold Coast Titans is proof they're still figuring it out, but equally clear is the message around what kind of team they want to be. Bennett has assembled a combination of premiership winning nous (Bromwich x 2, Kaufusi), grunt (Wallace, Nichols), a touch of zip (Marshall-King), a sprinkle of promise (Gilbert), and a heaped tablespoon of aggressive depth (Ese'Ese, Stone).

According to Woolf, expectations remain lofty despite the ugly dress rehearsal in front of the Dolphins faithful.

"We expected we'd play a bit better, and we thought we would. All the indications training wise, and how hard the group had worked certainly said that," he explains.

"But trials are trials. I've been involved in a lot of teams that trial well, then play poorly; or trial poorly and play well. We took out of it the things we need to work harder at, have higher standards at. What hasn't changed is the confidence I've got in the group. We want to be a team that's hard to beat."

Once the giddy gloss of the league debut wears off the Dolphins will face the Raiders and Knights, before another historic outing; a maiden tussle with Brisbane. Tom Flegler and Herbie Farnworth - barring injury, illness, or form - will get a good look at their future teammates. The rest of us will have more of an idea of the type of team Bennett and his staff have put together for the present.

It's all just a bit historic, and there really is no better word for it.