How do Wayne Bennett and the Dolphins build an NRL roster from scratch?

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“There’s a science to it, and it’s not as easy as it sounds,” says John Ribot, who set up the Brisbane Broncos alongside Bennett in 1988 and then was the Melbourne Storm’s inaugural boss a decade later.

“We were under the pump the first few years [at Melbourne] because if we got it wrong, we were going to be kicked out of the competition. A lot of people think we had an inside run, but that was just not true. We were so nervous. We had to get good people, and good attitudes.”

On that score, The Dolphins will have few problems. Seven-time premiership-winning coach Bennett will be a magnet for other players, and O’Sullivan’s CV includes spotting the likes of Greg Inglis, Israel Folau, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Latrell Mitchell. They both carry enough gravitas to be heavy hitters in the player market.

But who will The Dolphins target first?

Newcastle whiz Kalyn Ponga has an option in his contract which allows him to leave the Knights at the end of next year. He would instantly be the face of the franchise, and a lure for prospective signings to join the new team.

“Kalyn’s a quality player,” O’Sullivan says. “You could list 20 players there that you would want at your club. Kalyn would be one of them. He’s got to want to go and if that’s a possibility, of course you’d want Kalyn. But it hasn’t been discussed in any great detail.”

Then there is Cameron Munster, who has angered Storm powerbrokers with his off-field antics (he will serve a one-match ban over the white powder scandal), and has previously spoken of his interest in returning to Queensland to play for the 17th team. He’s not off contract, though, until the end of 2023.

‘You could list 20 players there that you would want at your club. Kalyn would be one of them.’

Peter O’Sullivan

But how hard is it to sell a dream to players they haven’t been able to see? And how does that affect what you need to pay them?

“They may have to pay overs to get a few players to a new franchise,” Ribot says. “Agents will go in there and screw as hard as they do, and they’ll tell you they’ve got the best nine, seven, six and one, but that’s where you’ve got to be strong and really understand what you want. I think they’ve got the capacity to be able to do that.”

The most successful club of a generation, the Storm, previously built a salary cap around three marquee players in Cameron Smith, Billy Slater and Cooper Cronk. Craig Bellamy would then fill the rest his squad with role players on limited salaries.

The model is also favoured by Manly, who spend big on the game’s highest earner, captain Cherry-Evans, and the Trbojevic brothers, Jake and Tom.

Knights fullback Kalyn Ponga has a clause which will allow him to leave Newcastle at the end of 2022.

Knights fullback Kalyn Ponga has a clause which will allow him to leave Newcastle at the end of 2022.Credit:Getty

But a club like Parramatta prefer a more balanced approach to their roster, being the only team in this year’s finals series without a $1 million-a-season player on their books.

So what will The Dolphins’ salary cap look like?

Asked about the Sea Eagles’ salary cap structure, O’Sullivan says: “It’s sustainable if you have got really good players. That model, which I quite like, you need to be getting quality players on cheap rates from other clubs. Or you need to have a lot of players coming through your junior system into senior.

“I prefer having a more even split in players one to seven than having a big differential from players two to seven. The players we’re looking at down the bottom end of the payment scale are just as important as the top. If we sign a few boys now, whose value increases over the year, we’ve already got those value money players.”

Foundation Titans coach John Cartwright.

Foundation Titans coach John Cartwright.Credit:Getty

The Titans eventually made former Dally M Medal winner Preston Campbell their first signing, and mixed him with veterans such as Mat Rogers, Luke Bailey, Anthony Laffranchi, Nathan Friend and Michael Hodgson.

They wanted players of good character, much like the Storm’s inaugural squad included Glenn Lazarus, Robbie Kearns, Brett Kimmorley, Matt Geyer and Scott Hill, which would win a title in just its second year.

But character might be trumped by class when it comes to the modern game, with Broncos assistant coach Cartwright adamant The Dolphins will want a couple of big scalps at fullback, five-eighth, halfback and hooker.

“It’s proven you can have the best front-rowers, wingers and centres, but if you haven’t got those guys with try assists, tries, great kicking games and running ability out of dummy-half, then you just struggle to beat the sides who have them [in the modern game],” Cartwright says.

“I think you’ll find [The Dolphins] will target the best hooker on the market, the best halfback on the market and I think they’ll go after a couple of marquees in those four [spine] positions.

“And whilst it was exciting [building a new squad], and we found a lot of people were very keen, when push comes to shove you’ve got player managers that are pushing the bottom line. It’s not about, ‘it’s a brand-new franchise, this is exciting, we’re going to come here and play for less’.”

Bennett, O’Sullivan and The Dolphins will be desperate to limit contract blunders in the franchise’s early years.

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The Bulldogs and Tigers have experienced a mountain of on-field heartache for inflated contracts which have left their salary caps in a mess. It can take years to recover, and it’s easy to argue those clubs are still recovering.

Being competitive on the field from day one is crucial to any franchise’s success. Fans and corporate support is fickle, and most won’t want to hang around if The Dolphins can’t hold their own in the first couple of years.

O’Sullivan has the lessons of the Titans burned into his brain.

“They were competitive, then they had big lulls,” he says. “It was simply because they didn’t have the players underneath. They got the first part right, but you need to get all parts right.”

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