As we enjoy the second week of the finals series, it's almost been temporarily forgotten that 2023 saw the introduction of a new side in the Dolphins.
I'm fairly strict in my gradings, especially in the post-season.
The general rule is if you miss finals, then you've not enjoyed a successful season.
Sometimes this is well beyond re-building sides while a finals appearance isn't good enough for the competition's elite, but it's a general rule.
With the Dolphins though, I don't believe applying this rule is fair.
After all, this was a team hastily thrown together, by NRL new side standards, over the space of around 12 months.
Taking this into account, and comparing their performances against expectations, there is an argument that can be made to declare their season a success.
That's not to say that they didn't have their struggles. They certainly did.
Let's take a look at the good, and the bad, to hopefully arrive at a final grade for the Dolphins inaugural season:
How would you rate the Dolphins inaugral season? @zerotackle
— Dan (@suthodan) September 14, 2023
A massive Sunday afternoon crowd turned up for the Dolphins first game. Albeit most expecting a tough afternoon against the highly fancied Roosters.
My greatest fear for this new club was that they would start slowly, cop a hiding or two and that the buzz would quickly fade away.
I need not have worried as the Dolphins defied massive odds to not only beat the Roosters on their opening day but start the season with a three game win streak.
They would beat the aforementioned Roosters, then the Raiders then the Knights, before suffering their first loss in round four.
The fact they pushed the Broncos all the way in front of a sold out Suncorp Stadium crowd may have been the best sign of all.
The Phins defied everyone's expectations early on and helped establish a committed and passionate fan base. That may have been their biggest win of the season.
A magic weekend
I don't often highlight one result in these grading pieces, but this one deserves special mention.
The Dolphins 36-16 win over the in form Sharks was arguably their best win of the season. If you were to go back to the Roosters, I won't argue, but this is top two at worst.
Truth be told, their win was arguably the highlight of a truly Magic weekend.
It will be remembered as the afternoon and evening where Valynce Te Whare arrived.
The Phins were breathtaking and bolted out to a 30-0 lead. This was one of the performances of the season and absolutely the highlight of Magic Weekend for mine.
2023 was about far more than just getting their footing for the Dolphins. It was also about setting the club up for 2024 and beyond.
The big test would come in who they could attract for 2024.
In Herbie Farnworth and Tom Flegler the Dolphins have landed one monster double blow. From their cross-town rivals too no less.
Farnworth can lay very credible claims to being the best centre in the game right now. Certainly on his night there are few, if any, who can compete.
Flegler has established himself as a rock in the Broncos side. His increased workload in Dolphins colours can only further assist his rapid development.
The excitement for Jake Averillo's signing will be blunted by a potential long-term injury but he has been fantastic this season.
Add those three stars to the Dolphins already exciting roster and 2024 and beyond is looking very bright.
Ok, I get it. When you sign a full squad you're going to land some big recruitment wins, but I think the Dolphins have set themselves up brilliantly.
Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow is very obviously the star of the show and looks like he can be absolutely anything!
Jamayne Isaako went from a bit-part player with the Broncos to the competition's leading point scorer in Phins colours. He's one of the game's best attacking wingers.
Kodi Nikorima has a season beyond anyone's expectations. He legit looks like a different player in 2023.
Euan Aitken shocked everyone with his efforts across multiple positions.
Connelly Lemuelu, Ray Stone and Tom Gilbert all arrived with plenty of talent, only to absolutely smash all expectations out of the park. Gilbert especially looks an Origin cert for many years to come.
Jeremy Marshall-King my prove, long-term, to be the best signing of all. Until his injury, he looked the most likely to push the likes of Grant and Koroisau as the game's elite number nine.
Squad depth issues
The glaringly obvious weakness in this squad heading into 2023 was a lack of depth across the squad.
I challenge any club to throw together a 30 man squad across the span of one season without having some big issues outside the top 17.
Injuries struck the Phins, like every side across the comp, but unfortunately the gap between first choice and depth was large.
I don't want to single out any players or positions as I believe it would be unfair.
Development players were thrown in before they would have ideally been called upon.
There was a time between Round 14 and Round 27 where they only had one win. There were two byes for context but their only win during that period was the brilliant, come from behind win over the Titans.
Their depth was tested in a big way but may prove a positive in the long-term. For now though, that rough patch was the undoubted negative for 2023, and it came as soon as their top 17 was injury depleted.
The signings that did not work out
When you sign a complete squad from scratch, there were always going to be players who ultimate don't work out. It's impossible to land 30/30.
That said, unfortunately the Dolphins did have a few players who they would have expected to play a big part in their first season, only for them to not live up to said billing.
Anthony Milford is the obvious one.
Milford was brought in by Wayne Bennett to be the dominant and experienced half. Unfortunately he did not deliver and was reduced to an occasional stint from the bench.
There were others who didn't set the world on fire but these were three, former Origin players, expected to lead the way and unfortunately did not.
Overall grade: B-
Anything above a C is going to sound strange within the context of missing Finals, but if anyone deserves a pass, it is this Dolphins side.
Many had their as undeniable favourites for the wooden spoon. No one, seriously, thought they'd start the season with three wins from three.
The Dolphins smashed any and all expectations in 2023 whilst signing three stars and setting themselves up for a huge 2024.
The winless run certainly hurt them late on, and outside of the opening month they were never really in Finals discussions, but otherwise this was a glorious inaugural season.
An undoubted Phins Up from me!