NRL Round 1 predicted teams: The Dolphins now have depth – but now, they have to deal with expectation
As part of a series profiling the expected Round 1 sides for all 17 NRL clubs in 2024, it’s time to see if the Dolphins can back up their strong start
It’s a cliché to mention the difficult second season, but that’s the challenge facing Wayne Bennett and the Dolphins going into 2024.
They have pressure this time, with a squad that is materially stronger than it was and the addition of Herbie Farnworth and Tom Flegler, two players who would have a case to be their most talented straight off the bat.
Redcliffe’s undoing in 2023 was a lack of depth, but fortunately for them, they had performed so well at the start of the year that anything after Origin was a free hit.
Bennett and his assistant, Kristian Woolf, must now replicate that start and try to keep it going for longer – which, given the state of their roster, shouldn’t be a huge problem.
The principle behind the Dolphins’ recruitment has been that they would get the best team they could to start in the NRL, but remain conscious that it was season one of a long, long existence, with the goal of incrementally building year-on-year.
On paper, they’ve done exactly that. The new guys are better than the old guys, and the old guys are now the depth. Only the very worst have been flushed out of the bottom.
The Phins also suffered a fair few key player injuries, with Jeremy Marshall-King and Tom Gilbert particular losses, and now get those guys back.
Looking at the 17 that should start the year, it’s remarkably strong for a team that came 13th in 2023 – now, they just have to back it up.
The Dolphins’ weak point in 2023 was their centres, and they have immediately upgraded both with the arrival of Farnworth and Jake Averillo.
It remains bonkers that the Bulldogs let their local junior go, but their loss is Redcliffe’s gain as Averillo will finally get the chance to shine in what should be a relatively functioning unit.
Given how well he went at times in a poor Dogs outfit, it’s all set up for him to succeed.
Farnworth is a gun and overtook Kotoni Staggs as the most important centre at the Broncos, but now he has to go one more and dominate in a way that transcends his position.
It’s not unreasonable to think that he could end up on the same tier as Joey Manu and Stephen Crichton as the absolute best in the world, but they have a few more years of excellence behind them. Herbie has to kick on.
It’s a similar story for Flegler, who has been very good as the third wheel behind Pat Carrigan and Payne Haas, and now must be the main guy in a forward pack that needs a leader.
Most of the incumbents are widing down their careers, and the next generation has to start now with Flegler and Gilbert as the leaders.
Brenko Lee, Herman Ese’ese, JJ Collins and Poasa Faamuasili are all out, and none will be a loss.
Ese’ese actually featured a lot last year, playing pretty much every week off the bench, but with Flegler arriving, he’d have been bumped from that role anyway with someone else moving out of the run on and onto the interchange.
Brenko played 13 games in 2023, which is probably 13 more than anyone would have hoped for, while Collins and Faamausili didn’t even manage that.
Key spots to unlock?
There is a bit of a condundrum in the halves that Bennett has to get right.
Last year, he lost his intended halfback, Sean O’Sullivan, to injury and was forced to play Kodi Nikorima as a five eighth and Isaiya Katoa, who began at 6, at 7.
In the end, it went pretty well considering and by the end, it was O’Sullivan at 7, Kodi at 6 and Katoa on the bench.
That was more acceptable at the end of the season with nothing riding on the games and Katoa a little battered after his first year in grade, but this time around, it’d be a surprise if he didn’t start.
Redcliffe went above and beyond to get Katoa in to be their long-term future half, so even if Kodi and O’Sullivan might be the best combo for right now, it would be dumb to relegate Katoa to bench minutes.
Moreover, Kodi’s greatest strengths are his versatility and ability to do the unexpected, which makes him perfect as a bench 14. Not for the first time, his utility value might hurt him.
Max Plath has a similar ability to cover multiple positions and would surely feature later in the year as injuries kick in, but for now, he’ll be in Q Cup. Ray Stone is also an option, but it’s hard to see where he fits into a crowded bench.
The addition of Flegler will see someone have to slip to the bench, but it’s hard to see who.
Jarrod Wallace and Mark Nicholls were both decent off the interchange last year, and moving Kenny Bromwich down allows Connolly Lemuelu, a breakout star in 2023, to play 80 on the edge.
A lot of it will come down to how Bennett wants to approach opponents. The style was highly conservative and relied upon Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow to crack defences open, and it wouldn’t be unrealistic for this year’s plan to be that again, but with added Herbie and Averillo magic.
If that’s it, then Kodi plus three big men on the bench works to start off with. It’ll take a few injuries and suspensions to see if this new-found depth can be relied upon – and that’s where we’ll find out if year two is to be an improvement on a superb start to life in the NRL.
Round 1 predicted team
1 Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow
2 Jamayne Isaako
3 Herbie Farnworth
4 Jake Averillo
5 Tesi Niu
6 Isaiya Katoa
7 Sean O’Sullivan
8 Jesse Bromwich
9 Jeremy Marshall-King
10 Tom Flegler
11 Felise Kaufusi
12 Connolly Lemuelu
13 Tom Gilbert
14 Kodi Nikorima
15 Kenny Bromwich
16 Mark Nicholls
17 Jarrod Wallace
Other squad members: Valynce Te Whare, Max Plath, Ray Stone, Jack Bostock, Edrick Lee, Euan Aitken, Harrison Graham, Josh Kerr, Mason Teague, Robert Jennings, Oryn Keeley, Anthony Milford
Development players: Kurt Donoghoe, Jeremiah Simbiken, James Walsh, Michael Waqa, Ryan Jackson