“Good players,” said a great sporting philosopher, “they want to be good players all the time. Don’t you know how profound that is?”
Alright, it wasn’t a philosopher, it was former Leyton Orient manager John Sitton in one of the all-time classic sporting meltdowns.
But amid the frazzled football man’s attempts to fire, fight and frighten his own players, there was that nugget of wisdom. Good players want to be good players all the time.
Wayne Bennett is unlikely to have offered any of his players out for a car park straightener like Sitton – now a taxi driver – did, but he would certainly appreciate the appeal to consistency.
Bennett is a supreme motivator and man manager, and has made a career out of producing consistency where, previously, there was only talent.
Across five decades’ worth of coaching, he’s turned guys that nobody could get a tune out of into world beaters – and perhaps never so effectively as last year with the Dolphins.
Bennett has never been known as a tactics-first guy, but better than almost anyone, he fundamentally understands the nature of rugby league as a weak-link sport, and has always been able to raise the floor sufficiently high that his teams wouldn’t lose, allowing the conditions from which his best players could deliver wins.
Given a team of potential weak links at Redcliffe, he turned the Dolphins into a side that, through commitment, collective effort and spirit, could reach a baseline of performance most weeks and therefore pick up wins against those who dropped their own levels.
Remember that second part, by the way. Weak links lose you games and strong links win them, and the strongest link by a long chalk in the Dolphins line-up was Hamiso Tabua-Fidow.
Here was a guy that the Cowboys were happy to let go, who had played 50 games but never locked down a position.
He got seven straight at fullback after debuting on the wing, before getting moved back to an edge, then to the centres, then back to fullback, then to the bench, then wherever needed. Seven was the longest streak in the same role, and that when he first broke into grade.
At the Dolphins, Bennett gave him the 1 and left him there for 13 matches before injuries elsewhere forced his hand. He was rewarded with the best form of Tabuai-Fidow’s career.
Now, the challenge for Bennett, Hammer and the Dolphins is consistency.
Last year, they were the beneficiary of a little complacency from others, a lack of expectation on themselves and a high level of cohesion that came from having a squad that they couldn’t really rotate.
In 2024, nobody will be complacent, there is a baseline level that the club need to top and signings have brought an element of choice to the selection table.
Bennett and assistant Kristian Woolf have done well to make Redcliffe a place that players want to join and have recruited smartly in strengthening the centres, their weakest position, while adding vital depth.
Where Euan Aitken and Herman Ese’ese were regulars, now Herbie Farnworth and Tom Flegler can come in.
The likes of Edrick Lee and Anthony Milford will not be seen anywhere near as much, and Brenko Lee and JJ Collins not at all.
The floor is raised, but the pressure is now on Tabuai-Fidow to do it all over again.
The way the Dolphins set up last year was for Sean O’Sullivan to be the steady hand with Isaiya Katoa or Kodi Nikorima to provide spark and Jeremy Marshall-King to move the side around.
It worked pretty well, with Nikorima in particular having a great season – chalk another up for Bennett the master – and Katoa doing well in his first year of grade.
Top of the pile was the Hammer – at least, for the first part of the year. Tabuai-Fidow racked up incredible numbers, especially before Origin, earning himself a Queensland jersey and a heap of prize.
Afterwards, however, he suffered with the rest of the team as fatigue, injuries and suspensions bit hard and saw results change.
That’s not a criticism of Hamiso, really, as creative players tend to need the game to be going in their favour to perform, and for smaller, speed-dominant guys, that might be even more true.
What is relevant for 2024 is that some of those issues should be solved. The depth is better and the general talent level across the 30 has risen, so theoretically the Hammer should get more chances to show what he can do.
The question for him is whether he can continue to add to what he has. His speed is as good as anyone’s and he has proven capable of making great impacts into games, but his ball-handling remains an area in which he could improve.
His creativity for other players, for example, ranks alongside guys like Hayze Perham and Daine Laurie – so not great – and in a side like the Dolphins, where the halves can sometimes take a backseat to the fullback in the structure, that might be problem.
With both Farnworth and Jake Averillo now in the side, there’ll be better options to pass to, and a more settled three pivots around him will help to build those connections.
The NRL is littered with stories of fast guys who burned bright at a young age and then weren’t able to make it last, but the signs are that, under Bennett and in this Dolphins structure, the Hammer won’t be one of them.
He’s got the talent to go to the next level and with the recruitment that has been done for 2024, he’ll get the support, too. He’ll also get guidance from Bennett, as well as the arm around the shoulder that he clearly needs.
Tabuai-Fidow was one of the breakout stars in a breakout season for the Phins. Now, it’s on him to make sure that he isn’t just a breakout, but a genuine star of the competition who can dominate over a long period. Based on 2023, you wouldn’t back against him.