Rugby League

NRL’s most wanted: the stars Bennett and the Dolphins will be chasing for 2023

Wayne Bennett will be armed with a $10 million chequebook when he kickstarts the biggest player market frenzy in over a decade, but the veteran coach insists South Sydney fans have nothing to worry about.

The seven-time premiership-winning coach has agreed to terms to coach the Dolphins as the NRL’s 17th team from 2023, and on November 1 will begin a 16-month project to assemble a 30-man roster.

One of the biggest names coming off contract is Cody Walker, who has opened negotiations with South Sydney for a new deal believed to worth around $850,000 a season.

Bennett, who is adamant a deal with the Dolphins is not yet signed, says the Rabbitohs have nothing to worry about.

“Souths have got nothing to worry about,” Bennett said. “I’m fond of a lot of players there and happy to coach them again anywhere, anytime. But my priority is to build a competitive team at Redcliffe if I take the job.”

The Herald has spoken to club officials, player agents and recruitment managers to find out who the Dolphins will be chasing and how they can fit them into an expected $10 million salary cap.

Fullbacks (two roster spots)

Kalyn Ponga has an option in his favour to explore for 2023 and beyond. He’s a Queenslander and would make an ideal marquee signing. The Eels are also in the middle of negotiations with Clint Gutherson, whose agent Sam Ayoub has been negotiating with the Dolphins on Bennett’s behalf. Most clubs spend top dollar on one fullback and a cheap back-up option to fit in their roster.

Target: Kalyn Ponga.Credit:Getty

Fullbacks available in 2023: Kalyn Ponga, Dylan Edwards, Clint Gutherson, Matt Dufty, Matt Moylan, Joseph Manu, Herbie Farnworth, Jamayne Isaako

Building the Dolphins: Potential fullbacks in roster

  • Kalyn Ponga ($1.1m)
  • Jamayne Isaako ($250,000)
  • Total fullback spend: $1.35m

Wingers (four roster spots)

Bennett has plenty of connections at South Sydney and the Broncos, with a number of his former players off contract. The Rabbitohs’ Jaxson Paulo and Alex Johnston, as well as Brisbane’s Corey Oates will be on the radar. An NRL roster usually has four specialist wingers.

Jaxson Paulo is off contract at the end of 2022.Credit:Getty

Wingers available: Alex Johnston, Asu Kepaoa, Isaac Lumelume, Dean Ieremia, Corey Oates, Jaxson Paulo, Josh Mansour, Reimis Smith, Jorge Taufua, Haze Dunster, Kane Bradley, Tui Katoa, George Jennings.

Building the Dolphins: Potential wingers in roster

  • Corey Oates ($150,000)
  • Jaxson Paulo ($200,000)
  • Jorge Taufua ($150,000)
  • Rookie/minimum wage x 1 ($90,000)
  • Total winger spend: $590,000

Centres (four roster spots)

Joseph Manu heads the list of off-contract centres, however it may not be determined a position of priority given the need to secure quality players in the spine. Paul Momirovski is great value, while Bennett may opt to give James Roberts a final fling at a bargain rate.

Joseph Manu crosses a very wet try line.Credit:Getty

Centres available: Joseph Manu, Paul Momirovski, James Roberts, Marcelo Montoya, Robert Jennings, Tom Opacic, Esan Marsters, Taane Milne

Building the Dolphins: Potential centres in roster

  • Paul Momirovski ($300,000)
  • James Roberts ($125,000)
  • Marcelo Montoya ($200,000)
  • Rookie/minimum wage x 1 ($90,000)
  • Total centre spend: $715,000

Five-eighths (2 roster spots)

Wayne Bennett will have two options to pursue. Off-contract South Sydney star Cody Walker, or agitate for Cameron Munster to be granted a release from Melbourne given recent off-field dramas placed a cloud over his future at the club.

A big offer could tempt Cameron Munster to return to his home state.Credit:Getty

Five-eighth available: Jack Bird, Cody Walker, Kieran Foran, Matt Frawley, Adam Keighran, Lachlan Lam, Kodi Nikorima, Jayden Sullivan, Billy Walters

Building the Dolphins: Potential five-eighths in roster

  • Cody Walker ($900,000)
  • Rookie/minimum wage x 3 ($90,000)
  • Total five-eighth spend: $990,000

Halfbacks (2 roster spots)

Given Bennett’s strong ties to Anthony Milford from their time together at the Broncos, don’t be surprised to see the pair reunite after the playmaker’s one-year stint at the Rabbitohs in 2022. Mitchell Pearce is the other big name player Bennett may pick up on a value-for-money deal at the end of his career.

Could the Dolphins be Anthony Milford’s last chance?Credit:Getty

Halfbacks available: Mitchell Pearce, Jake Arthur, Anthony Milford, Ash Taylor, Brandon Wakeham, Chanel Harris-Tavita, Tanah Boyd

Building the Dolphins: Potential halfbacks in roster

  • Anthony Milford ($250,000)
  • Rookie/minimum wage x 3 ($90,000)
  • Total halfback spend: $340,000

Props (6 roster spots)

Bennett is notorious for not paying overs for front-rowers, preferring to develop from within. Picking up the experience and leadership of Christian Welch and Marty Taupau will lay a strong foundation and not break the bank. Welch is a proud Queenslander.

Storm prop Christian Welch.Credit:NRL Photos

Props available: Christian Welch, Marty Taupau, Jarrod Wallace, Jamayne Taunoa-Brown, Daniel Alvaro, Jesse Bromwich, Braden Hamlin-Uele, Ryan James, Oregon Kaufusi, Jordan McLean, Blake Lawrie, Junior Paulo, Alex Twal, James Tamou, Paul Vaughan

Building the Dolphins: Potential props in roster

  • Christian Welch ($600,000)
  • Marty Taupau ($550,000)
  • Jarrod Wallace ($250,000)
  • Jamayne Taunoa-Brown ($200,000)
  • Rookie/minimum wage x 2 ($180,000)
  • Total prop spend: $1.78m

Second row (6 roster spots)

All eyes are on Viliame Kikau and his next move. Now that he’s won a competition with Penrith, his next deal will be about earning as much as possible to send home to family in Fiji. Briton Nikora could be a handy target given the money the Sharks have recently tied up in the forwards.

Panthers enforcer Viliame Kikau.Credit:Getty

Second-rowers available: Viliame Kikau, Briton Nikora, John Asiata, Billy Burns, Angus Crichton, Mitchell Dunn, Raymond Faitala-Mariner, Corey Harawira-Naera, Coen Hess, Tariq Sims, Felise Kaufusi, Ryan Matterson, Marata Niukore, Wade Graham, Luciano Leiluat, Isaiah Papali’i, Kevin Proctor

Building the Dolphins: Potential second-rowers in roster

  • Villiame Kikau ($800,000)
  • Briton Nikora ($450,000)
  • Tariq Sims ($300,000)
  • Coen Hess ($200,000)
  • Rookie/minimum wage x 2 ($180,000)
  • Total second-row spend: $1.93m

Locks (2 roster spots)

Gold Coast star Tino Fa’asuamaleaui has an option in his contract for 2023. The Queenslander would be a huge addition to Bennett’s Dolphins.

Tino Fa’asuamaleaui of the Titans.Credit:Getty

Locks available: Patrick Carrigan, Tino Fa’asuamaleaui, Corey Horsburgh, Max King, Ray Stone, Siosiua Taukeiaho

Building the Dolphins: Potential locks in roster

  • Tino Fa’asuamaleaui ($850,000)
  • Rookie/minimum wage x 1 ($90,000)
  • Total lock spend: $940,000

Hookers (3 roster spots)

Bennett has a number of quality players to choose from for a No.9. Brandon Smith, Josh Hodgson, Api Koroisau and Reed Mahoney will be his main targets. Smith may demand too much money, while Hodgson is at the back end of his career. Queenslander Mahoney may be the one that got away for Parramatta.

Eels hooker Reed Mahoney could be a savvy purchase for the Dolphins.Credit:Getty

Hookers available: Brandon Smith, Blayke Brailey, Reuben Cotter, Reed Mahoney, Josh Hodgson, Mitch Kenny, Api Koroisau, Freddy Lussic, Tom Starling, Jake Turpin

Building the Dolphins: Potential hookers in roster

  • Reed Mahoney ($600,000)
  • Rookie/minimum wage x 2 ($180,000)
  • Total hooker spend: $780,000

Utility (2 roster spots)

Building the Dolphins: Potential utilities in roster

  • Kodi Nikorima ($300,000)
  • Jake Turpin ($200,000)
  • Total utility spend: $500,000

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