It has been a 74-year-long tale of wins, losses, resurgence from bad bank balances, and the tireless devotion of generations that has culminated in a fairytale new chapter for a team once called “Shellgrit”.
A team which made its home on the site of a redeveloped dump.
Plenty of rugby league greats have pulled on the red and white of the Redcliffe Dolphins, but the next generation will be able to represent the club at the highest level — still wearing that red and white.
In 2023, the Redcliffe Dolphins — renamed to be a more inclusive Queensland side — will become the NRL’s 17th side and the fourth for the state.
The club’s star-studded history, decisive investments and focus on juniors have all helped it make an impact far beyond the peninsula it hails from.
‘You could see an old car bonnet making its way up’
The modern era of the Redcliffe Dolphins began at Dolphin Park in the late 1970s.
Moreton Daily Stadium, Dolphin Oval and the hills around it were developed on the site of an old refuse dump when the team outgrew their original home at the Redcliffe Showgrounds.
Former Dolphin Ian Graham said he remembered once seeing an old car bonnet surface from below the pitch, while others recall tripping on the odd piece of tyre which had also worked its way up.
“When they did the redevelopment, they cut out half those hills and you would still see rubbish bags, so it has come a long way from there,” Graham said.
It’s hard to believe its humble beginnings when you visit the site today.
This season, the ground hosted multiple NRL games and was the home ground for the A-League’s Brisbane Roar.
‘Bloody thumb prints’ and an age of folklore
Club patron and poet Rupert McCall said Dolphin Oval had become a “sacred site” for so many.
One of his favourite personal memories was stealing some limelight after the Brisbane Rugby League ’94 grand final when he recited his poem The Mighty Mighty Fins.
He had penned it that day on the back of a beer coaster and a piece of toilet paper on his way from Lang Park to Dolphin Oval.
“I grew up with that folklore, that fairytale, that romance of the Dolphins that had gone before,” he said.
His dad told him about Kevin Yow Yeh, who played for the team in the ’60s before going to the Balmain Tigers.
“He would say that when the ball was about three players away from him, everybody in the crowd would just stand up because they knew something exciting would happen when Kevin Yoh Yeh got hold of the ball,” McCall said.
Every second Sunday, he would perch on the “sacred turf” of Dolphin Oval, clutching a sarsaparilla snow cone and a bucket of hot chips, dressed in red and white as part of a “ritual and a pilgrimage”.
“At the end of 80 minutes of rugby league, we would flood the field with our autograph books, just trying to get the names of our heroes inscribed on those pages,” he said.
To McCall’s delight, Arthur Beetson once left a bloodied thumbprint in his autograph book.
“I thought life couldn’t get much better than that,” he said.
“That was my upbringing, and Dolphin Oval was central to my childhood.”
He said he can still feel each grand final loss from the ’80s era with the heartbreak he felt as he watched on.
‘Shaking the monkey off the back’
Graham captained the 1994 BRL grand final win for the club, the team’s first since 1965.
The club had suffered three grand final losses: in 1981 to Souths, in 1983 to Easts and in 1987 to Brothers.
In the early ’90s, he was playing with the Canberra Raiders under then-captain Craig Bellamy.
When construction work at Parliament House dried up, an increasingly hungry and broke Graham borrowed money to get his car fixed and headed home to make history.
“Back then, I was getting $300 a win and nothing if we lost so it was a real struggle,” he said.
With Graham’s return, he also brought back his Raider’s homework book — essentially a “handbook” of patterns of plays on the field.
“It was quite advanced back then and we put that all into the game plan and it really turned things around defensively,” he said.
Graham said the 24-18 victory against the Western Suburbs Panthers was a huge event for the Redcliffe Peninsula.
“I am getting goosebumps again, talking about it,” he said.
“Back then in the mid-’90s there was bugger-all work around and the peninsula was doing it tough.
“When we were winning, that place was packed and everyone was just happy.”
McCall described the win as “shaking the monkey off the club’s back”.
Graham said when he thinks of that game, he can see then-club chairman Des Webb “bawling like a little girl”.
“He just came and gave me a bear hug. My dad passed away in June that year, and he was like my old man in a lot of ways.”
While his old teammates in Canberra won the NSWRL comp in the same year, Graham said he never regretted leaving the side and coming home.
“I would’ve been disappointed if I wasn’t involved in that piece of Redcliffe’s history,” he said.
“I’m still the only born and bred local junior-premiership-winning captain.”
A development ground for heroes
Trevor Benson started with the club in the ’70s as a junior and played 237 first grade games for the Dolphins. In 1990, he was awarded the Rothmans Medal, the premier individual award in the competition.
Benson said as a 19-year-old he couldn’t believe his luck running onto the pitch with his childhood heroes, including captain-coach Arthur Beetson.
Beetson, who served as the captain in Queensland’s first Origin side in 1980, became the game’s seventh immortal in 2003.
In 1981, the Dolphins had a strong season and it was thought a grand final victory against Southern Suburbs was in the bag.
According to club oral history, one punter had already popped the champagne when hopes were dashed.
It was a heartbreaking loss for the team, undone by a Mal Meninga pass in the dying seconds of the game.
“Mal gave a pass to Reardon the winger, who scored in the corner. The hooter went and it was over,” Benson said.
Southern Suburbs won the game 13-9.
Benson said he felt privileged to play during a period that marked a handing over of the old guard to a new generation of players who became entrenched in the club’s history.
Greats from the ’70s like Tony Obst, Ian “Bunny” Pearce and Beetson gave way to younger players including Mitch Brennan, Wally Fullerton-Smith, Ian Thiney, Mark Murray, Greg Conescu, Steve Bleakley and Steve Cherry among others.
“It had a great junior base and it still does. When the kids grew up, they actually wanted to play first grade for Redcliffe,” he said.
The ’84 grand final team which lost to Wynnum included at least seven international players.
Diversification while never losing sight of the footy
In the late 1980s, the Dolphins, like many BRL clubs, went through tough times financially.
The Broncos had joined the New South Wales Rugby League’s competition in 1988 and some of Queensland’s best players were being lured to wealthier clubs with poker machine revenue down south.
Former Redcliffe player and coach Mark Murray said that during the 1988 season, the club had to tell the players it couldn’t afford to pay them.
“I remember Dessy Webb assembling the whole club before the training session kicked off and saying, ‘listen, guys, things aren’t travelling that well financially for the club’,” Murray said.
The players were then told that there was no guarantee they could be paid for the remainder of the season and if they wanted to leave the club before it ended, they could and would be paid up until that point.
“Nobody left the club. Everyone played out the season and as it turned out, everyone did get paid for that year, which is a credit to the club,” he said.
Many remember the bar running out of beer and the club having no money to buy more.
Trevor Benson said he remembered Des Webb, who was then president, pulling out his own credit card to buy kegs.
“The Sydney clubs were flourishing on the back of poker machines, and we had that mass exodus of our best players going to Sydney which was the main route to Origin, so those days were pretty bleak,” Murray said.
He said at that time it looked impossible that a club like Redcliffe could join a national competition, but it started to change as the team began winning during the ’90s.
In 1992, the Queensland government allowed sporting clubs to put poker machines in their venues and things changed, with more revenue coming in.
Current chairman Bob Jones said while the club was making money from gambling, after a tax change it decided it should diversify its income streams so as not to rely on gambling.
“We thought we shouldn’t be left at the whim of someone making a decision outside our club, we should put ourselves in a position where we can, you know, be in control of our own destiny,” he said.
“We have done that and we continue to do that.”
The club now runs a fitness and aquatic centre and the Dolphins Central shopping centre, which contains a supermarket.
He said there was “no doubt” having a financially secure club influenced the success of the NRL bid.
Stability not only in its finances but in its board is something the club has prided itself on.
“In 50 years, we have had three chairmen and I am the shortest-serving one in my 11th year,” Jones said.
“We’ve been able to get things done and accomplish things, but they don’t happen overnight. It’s been a long and steady process and with a stable board, you don’t have to rush into it.”
He said the club has grown and become financially stable but remained focused on the sport.
“Our charter, as the league’s club, is to look after the Redcliffe and District Rugby League Football Club,” he said.
“Everything that we do is aimed at fostering and promoting rugby league in our district and in our area and nothing is going to change that. That’s our focus. “
‘Tribal’ and close-knit
“There is something about the peninsula and the lay of the land around Moreton Daily Stadium that just harnessed the passion of a city — a tribe I supposed — that loved it’s footy,” McCall said.
“It was self-contained back then and it was tribal. There was something about the dyed-in-the-wool, salt of the earth, grassroots connotation that came with being a Dolphins fan.”
He said the foundation for future success was laid by three past club administrators — Dick “Tosser” Turner, Don McLennan and Des Webb — as well as countless others who believed in the club.
“Three mighty rocks of rugby league on the peninsula just sowed the seeds and laid the platform for something that was destined for bigger things,” he said.
“That was to be the best that it can be and that was to be a team in the NRL and that is the way it evolved,” he said.