The Gunnedah Connection is eagerly awaiting the debut of the Dolphins as the 17th side in the National Rugby League at the weekend.

Former Gunnedah Bulldogs’ players Anthony Murphy and Robert (Changa) Jones are at the helm of the Dolphins franchise, which will go in against 16 other NRL teams in the toughest rugby league competition in the world, starting with the opening-round clash with league foundation club, the Sydney Roosters, on Sunday.

Jones is chairman of the Dolphins NRL board and also chairman of the Redcliffe Leagues Club board and Murphy is overall Group Chief Executive Officer (CEO) for the venture.

Chairman Robert Jones said the Dolphins could “hardly wait” for the season’s start, after a long campaign to gain acceptance in the NRL and then to establish its debut roster of 30 players.

“It has been a long journey but we’ve made it,” he said.

Jones played in the Gunnedah Bulldogs’ Group 4 premiership team as hooker in 1973, the year the Bulldogs won the Clayton Cup as champion team in NSW Country Rugby League. He ended up playing with Redcliffe in the Brisbane competition and when he retired, he took on administrative roles in the club.

“I take great pride in the fact that I recruited Anthony (Murphy) as a player in 1982 – he was handy, too, but his career was blighted by a bung knee. Over the years, though, he has become an outstanding asset to our club,” Jones said this week.

“His innovative thinking and his ability to ‘get things done’ are second to none. Our shopping centre, pool and retail gym, as well as our 10,000-seat stadium, were all Anthony’s projects.”

Jones revealed that the Dolphins’ “splash” in the NRL was the outcome of a decade-long campaign.

“In 2010-11, we decided to get serious about putting ourselves in a position to play at the highest level – we diversified our asset base, so that if the opportunity came knocking, we would be ready. It came when the NRL gave us the nod as the 17th team.

“It was a long road for us but we never lost sight of the end goal.”

The Dolphins’ first signing was supercoach Wayne Bennett, regarded as one of the greatest coaches of all time, holding the record for the most grand-final wins (7) and most seasons with a single club (24 years at the Broncos).

Bennett was the inaugural coach of the Brisbane Broncos in 1988 and went on to win six premierships, adding a seventh with the St George Dragons in 2010.  He has coached at State of Origin and Australian levels, as well as taking charge of Great Britain and English teams in recent years. Overall, his coaching tally stands at a record 886 games between 1986 and his signing with the Dolphins.

Robert Jones said it had been “tough” entering the competitive market place but the Dolphins had been able to come up with a “handy” roster.

“We have a very strong and experienced forward pack and some promising backs and there is room in our salary cap for a few more quality players, if they become available early in the season.

“Wayne (Bennett) has been a revelation to us on and off the field. He is a quality person, exceptional in his field. He’s honest and direct and he’s very popular with the players, the ideal man manager.” 

The Dolphins entered the market late last year, signing former Melbourne Storm premiership players Jesse and Ken Bromwich and Felise Kaufusi, giving the new club an impressive forward roster alongside other signings Mark Nicholls, Tom Gilbert and Jarrod Wallace.

The Dolphins have now added former Dragons’ prop Poasa Faamausili to their ranks.

Another important acquisition is former New Zealand, Samoa, Broncos and Titans prop Herman Ese’ese.

The Dolphins have also signed Penrith playmaker Sean O’Sullivan as halfback, playing inside 206-game veteran Anthony Milford (Broncos, Raiders, Queensland, Samoa), as well as North Queensland flyer Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow, known as The Hammer, who has signed a two-year deal.

The club has high hopes for English centre Oliver Gildart, who has played in four Super League grand finals, winning two with Wigan, and Australian Schoolboys’ players Isaiya Katoa and Michael Roberts, who will be pressing for backline places this season.

Katoa, 19, is seen as one of the NRL’s rising stars, having already played Test football with Tonga.

The Dolphins’ form in pre-season trial matches has been mixed, but according to Robert Jones, “It’s all part of the bedding-down process – we’re building up combinations and  we’re excited that we are in elite company. 

“It’s a tall order starting from scratch but we’re up for the challenge.”

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