With just days remaining until the November 1 contract deadline sparks what is expected to be a seismic degree of player movement, and despite the rosters of all 17 NRL clubs being ripe for adjustment; there's a strong sense of league-wide anticipation centering on one club. A club that- barring the odd pre-season trial- is yet to kick a ball in Australia's premier rugby league competition.
The question on many a league focused mind- "Who will the Dolphins get?"
Answers remain tantalisingly out of reach. Terry Reader, mastermind of the Dolphins NRL bid and incoming chief, Dolphins group CEO Tony Murphy, and Chairman Bob Jones have been understandably reluctant to share specifics on player targets; leaving it to media speculation and the odd cryptic nugget from within the NRL itself.
As Dolphin number 425, and the current General Manager of football operations for the Redcliffe RLFC; Grant Cleal knows a thing or two about how the club thinks, and what makes it click.
'Crusher,' as he's known on the Redcliffe peninsula, joined the Dolphins in 1989. The surname/nickname combination is no doubt a familiar one to rugby league diehards; and it's fairly earned. Cleal is a premiership winning captain with the club, a long serving and shrewd administrator, and in recent years has seen his son Tyson make a devastating impact at state league level. The former front rower has been an often unheralded force near the front and centre of the Redcliffe Dolphins, throughout a proud ascent to the top of the Queensland Cup.
That ride began in 1996, and has culminated in Redcliffe assuming the mantle as the state competition's most successful club. The excitement surrounding the next chapter- a leap to NRL level- is still being keenly felt by 'Crusher' and his cohorts at Dolphins HQ.
"If you're not excited around the place at the moment, you probably haven't got a pulse," Cleal tells ESPN.
"Our (state league) players aren't around at the moment, they're all on off season, but we'll gauge their excitement about what's ahead when they get back. But for everyone else- sponsors, members, supporters, staff- it's an amazing time."
Cleal is in a good place to make an assessment on playing stocks and what makes the ideal recruit, as those piloting the journey to the NRL sharpen their pencils, with the November 1 player free-for-all looming ever larger.
"I need to make it clear that I'm involved with the ISC (QLD Cup) team," he explains to ESPN.
"I've not played the part of guys like Terry Reader, Bob Jones and Tony Murphy in this NRL bid process."
An important distinction, and one that places Cleal in an even better position to speculate freely about the short term future of rugby league, and associated on-field personnel, on the Redcliffe peninsula. Since the Dolphins successfully warded off the challenge of their rival bids to be declared the NRL's 17th team in waiting, much has been made about the importance of separating the Redcliffe Dolphins (established 1947), from The Dolphins (established 2023). But one thing that can't be separated, is the fabric- or the bones- of a 74-year-old club. Different entities they may be, but the existing values and ethic of the club provide a bedrock no other foundation club has enjoyed.
Despite his insistence that the NRL teams hit list is largely out of his hands, Cleal is clearly excited about the prospect of providing a bonafide one club pathway for elite talent in South East Queensland.
"Kids from as young as six start out with that dream of playing in the NRL," he explains. "The difference now is, you can start as a 6-year-old and get all the way to NRL level without getting out of a Dolphins jersey. No other club can offer that. We cater for all levels of rugby league."
While a lot of the focus will be on acquiring established stars, Cleal readily nominates a few of the Redcliffe Dolphins current state league (Intrust Super Cup) playing stocks as potential candidates for NRL contracts.
"We're like a lot of other teams, in that we've got a smattering of players that could make that leap to the top level. Our player of the year is a young front rower by the name of Lachlan Timm, he's one guy with a great work rate and a real pro attitude.
"Trai Fuller is another. A really exciting and instinctive little fullback, he won the player's player award this season. I think a guy like him could definitely make the jump.
"That'll be a big milestone, to have one of our senior guys convert to the NRL. But I'm looking forward to the day a local junior makes that jump; into our state team, and then to the NRL. That'll be a big day for us."
The potential for dreams to materialise into reality for starry-eyed state league players is far broader than the Hornibrook Bridge- which is the only road that accesses Redcliffe from the mainland. Pathways for Queensland players will exist in the form of affiliations with clubs as far away as the Central Queensland Capras (based in Rockhampton). This may be the time in the sun for Redcliffe, and an accolade every other team would trade their leagues club for, but according to Cleal, there is a strong sentiment that what is good for the Dolphins is great for the game in Queensland.
"It helps to provide that extra pathway for kids right through- from the Moreton Bay region, right up to Central Queensland," Cleal adds. "It's a terrific region for talent, and for a lot of years they haven't had that NRL affiliate club that can assist with things like junior development, and the flow of players not making an NRL 17 every week. I see it as great for that area, and great for that region as well."
Looking further afield, it's the existing NRL ranks that will be the predominant hunting ground come November 1. So what kind of player will the Dolphins be targeting? Framed otherwise, what sort of player can embody what it is the Dolphins want to create? Their biggest signing so far, and one who will have the biggest say on the above, is a former test winger, who's just turned 72.
"Probably the type of player Wayne Bennett likes, is the type of player we like," Cleal says. "Hard working, disciplined players that want to give the best account of themselves each week.
"Personally, I think a player like Harry Grant has a real way about him. He's only a young fellow, you could build a club around him. I can't confirm anyone has made a connection with Harry, I just think he's a terrific player; he's marketable, he keeps his nose clean."
Wayne Bennett has suggested he could build a club around Cameron Munster. He's no doubt got the widely advertised Brandon Smith in his thoughts, as well as a stern warning to back off, from his one-time assistant Craig Bellamy. While only two players from Melbourne are technically off contract come November 1 (Ryley Jacks and Judda Turahui), the Storm ranks are filled with players that could embody the Dolphins spirit. As are the other 15 clubs, which (aside from the Cowboys, also with two) are filled with off contract players.
Terry Reader has made no secret the fledgling franchise will be highly active in its pursuit of signatures, but has not once offered any names.
"That's the media mate," he told ESPN, when first beseeched for confirmation players like Grant and Munster were indeed in the crosshairs. "We haven't revealed or approached anyone. That's the rules.
"The key is having a roster. Not just one marquee player, but a roster that can be competitive from day one," Reader told media when asked for the ten thousandth time (this week) who would be the Dolphins foremost target.
"That's why we've got one of the best coaches, who knows what's needed. When the time comes, we will be ready to fill a roster, particularly those spots between 20 and 30."
Bennett will be armed with an eye watering amount of cash, and his own enduring aura, come November 1. The attraction of building a club from scratch and combining an audacious cocktail of the game's elite, established and emerging talent will have him rearing to get on the phone and get those wily wheels turning.
Elite players like Kalyn Ponga, established players like Paul Moirmorovski, and emerging stars like Herbie Farnworth could well be on speed dial. At the same time, he can afford to be patient.
You'd never say never to crossroads type players ending up at the Dolphins by 2023, especially those with history under Bennett. Names like Matt Lodge, or even (gasp) Anthony Milford. Then there's players that remain stuck behind others, or unwanted by their respective clubs. A Karl Lawton, or Tariq Sims, for example.
But as Reader has said (probably also ten thousand times), there are strict regulations in place, and we won't know a thing before the market officially opens up. When it does, Cleal is confident the appeal will see the books swiftly fill up.
"It's the whole package," he explains. "A chance to play for a brand new club; make history under Wayne Bennett, live in a beautiful part of the world, and play footy in front of a community of supporters that really love the game."
Wayne Bennett has also made no secret of the fact that the bones of the Redcliffe Dolphins played a significant role in luring him to the peninsula in the first place. The master coach's radar, as Cleal confirms, is already probing a lot closer to home.
"We've had a chat with Wayne," Cleal confirms. "Steve Crawford, who looks after our current academies and development, sat down with Wayne and myself for a meeting. That was really high on Wayne's agenda- making sure we have all those pathways in order."
Exciting times ahead, for those inside and outside the walls at Dolphins HQ.
Let the bidding begin.