This year, the Dolphins didn't reach the Finals in their debut season, but did impress with some great performances.
They’re recognised as the first NRL club since Penrith and Cronulla to be ‘promoted’ rather than built from scratch. Maybe this is the difference between a new club and a franchise? The latter is manufactured.
The history of the National Rugby League, the ARL and NSWRL is filled with teams in the never ending quest for rugby league expansion and new markets.
In each debut season, they look high and low to try and attract the best players from any source: England, Papua New Guinea and Queensland Cup... but often have to settle for whoever is available.
The debut game is a great illustration of that struggle in recruitment. Looking through squads from yesteryear and thinking “remember him?” is part of the fun.
So we thought we’d look back to the debut season of each new club and franchise before the Dolphins, and start with this post from when modern Rugby League began.
In 1988 the game added three teams to become a 16-team comp, before ballooning to a 20-team competition in 1995.
1988 was when Wally and Alfie threatened to sweep all before with the Brisbane Broncos. Only they didn’t.
This post includes the run-on team for each of the Brisbane Broncos, Gold Coast Giants and Newcastle Knights from 1988.
Next week we'll look at 1995 with the Auckland Warriors, Western Reds, North Queensland Cowboys plus the second Brisbane team, the South Queensland Crushers.
The acrimonious years of News Corp vs the ARL with the Super League war era and the formation of two new club's (franchises?) in the Adelaide Rams and Hunter Mariners in 1997, then the NRL expansion period with the Melbourne Storm from 1998 and the Gold Coast Titans in 2007.
We’ll go through each team, the result of their first game, add some info on their careers and what they’re doing now.
Let's get into it, starting with a sunny Sunday in March, 1988 at Lang Park.
The Brisbane Broncos were the most eagerly anticipated of the new teams in the then NSWRL. In their first game of their first season, they collided with the reigning premiers, Manly. The battleground for all their home games was Lang Park - the much missed precursor to Suncorp Stadium - where the Broncos managed a stunning debut, emerging victorious to the tune of 44-10.
For the Broncos, this win was not merely a statistic; it marked their foray into premiership contention and the first time Wayne Bennett was Head Coach in the National Rugby League after leaving his assistant job at the Canberra Raiders. A squad brimming with Queensland's finest international and state representatives, they stood toe-to-toe with what was considered a formidable Manly-Warringah side.
Brett Le Man etched his name into Broncos' history with their first-ever try, backing up after a Craig Grauf bomb. The star-studded lineup included Wally Lewis and Terry Matterson, for the Broncos, while the Sea Eagles included the iconic (and laconic) Cliff Lyons.
As halftime, the Broncos held a 14-6 lead, setting the stage for a gripping second half. The second half unfolded with more intensity, the amphitheatre of Lang Park crowd of 17,451 soaking in the spectacle of the birth of a new rugby league force. The Broncos had arrived, with a bang and over the next decade would go on to win multiple premierships
Brisbane BRONCOS vs Manly SEA EAGLES
When: Sunday, 6th March, 1988
Score: Brisbane Broncos 44 - 10 Manly Sea Eagles
Colin SCOTT (Full back)
Career Games Played: 204
Although he only played that one season, Scott’s Queensland and QRL career was legendary before this match. Now known as a mental health advocate after admitting to his own struggles over the years.
Joe KILROY (Wing)
Career Games Played: 145
Smokin’ Joe was an electrifying winger who had the Rugby league world at his (fast) feet in 1988. Unfortunately, his career was effectively cut short by off field troubles in the coming seasons.
Chris JOHNS (Centre)
Career Games Played: 173
After he retired, Johns worked in the upper echelons of administration primarily with News Corp NRL clubs with the Brisbane Broncos and Melbourne Storm.
Gene MILES (Centre)
Career Games Played: 226
Named in Australia's 100 greatest players in 2007, Miles pursued a media career and for many years was Chairman of selectors for the Queensland State of Origin team.
Michael HANCOCK (Wing)
Career Games Played: 274
Hancock went on to win five premierships in his 13 seasons in Brisbane, and since then has worked for with youngsters in the grassroots of the game.
Wally LEWIS (c) (Five Eighth)
Career Games Played: 301
Named as the sixth immortal after his retirement, 'King' Wally Lewis was a schoolboy Rugby Union star who made his Origin debut as a lock before becoming one of the greatest midfield lynchpins of all time. Captain of Brisbane, Queensland and the Australian Kangaroos in the international game, Lewis was also captain/coach of the Gold Coast Seagulls in his last season as a player. One of the greatest Australian players of all time, he went on to coach the Maroons in six State of Origin games, before becoming a prominent rugby league commentator and media personality.
Allan LANGER (Halfback)
Career Games Played: 258
'Alfie' Langer was a diminutive but tough young halfback who came to prominence in the previous year's State of Origin series, which Queensland won. He went on to win multiple premierships, spend years as the Kangaroos halfback in the international game and as a thorn in the Blues side in State of Origin. He continued his involvement in Rugby League after retirement and has held numerous managerial, trainer and coaching roles.
Terry MATTERSON (Lock)
Career Games Played: 304
Matterson was one of the few New South Welshmen in the Broncos squad, having come from the Roosters. After retiring, Terry Matterson pursued a coaching career and has been involved in various coaching roles in England, in the international game and the Queensland Cup.
Brett LE MAN (Second Row)
Career Games Played: 39
Scorer of the first ever try for the Broncos, he ended the day in hospital with a ripped eye socket courtesy of Noel ‘Crusher’ Cleal. Now runs his own Financial planning business in Queensland.
Keith GEE (Second Row)
Career Games Played: 140
One of the trio of Gee brothers to play Rugby League, Keith Gee moved to play for the Gold Coast Giants in 1989. He later made an unsuccessful bid for state parliament in Queensland before coaching the Beaudesert Kingfishers (top name, that).
Bryan NIEBLING (Front Row)
Career Games Played: 106
Probably one of the most underrated and semi-forgotten players of the late 80’s. Niebling represented Queensland and Australia, including all five Tests on the unbeaten 1986 Kangaroo tour. He was last seen working as an orderly in a hospital, including being on the frontlines during the Covid period.
Greg CONESCU (Hooker)
Career Games Played: 80
Consecu was one of those players opposition teams hated and fans loved. He lost his place after the following season to a young Kerrod Walters, and little is known of him publicly other than some prominent charity work.
Greg DOWLING (Front Row)
Career Games Played: 203
One of the toughest to ever play the game, Dowling came to the Broncos after a successful QRL career as well as some time spent in England with Wigan. He then worked in the media as a columnist and commentator, before eventually entering politics.
The Newcastle Knights returned to top tier Rugby League on March 5th, 1988 for the first time in more than 80 years. They faced the Parramatta Eels at the Newcastle Sports Ground and the Knights were keen to make a statement in their comeback, especially after a trial victory against defending premiers, Manly Sea Eagles.
Standing in their way, Parramatta boasted Peter Sterling, Brett Kenny, and Steve Ella, who had issued a preseason warning not to underestimate the Eels.
The stage was set for an epic clash.
Unfortunately for the Novocastrians, the Eels were in full control from the opening whistle, showing their class and experience. The first half ended with Parramatta leading 16-2, a lead they would not relinquish. Newcastle struggled to breach the Eels' defence, managing to score only from two penalty goals from Robbie Tew.
Try-scorers for the Eels included Michael Erickson, Eric Grothe, Peter Wynn, and Steve Ella, who also demonstrated accuracy with the boot by converting all four tries and adding two penalty goals.
In front of a crowd of over 26,000, the Eels spoiled Newcastle's return party with the final score of 28-4 reflecting the Eels' dominance. It seemed Parra would be a force to be reckoned with in 1988. However, they finished the year firmly rooted in the mid table with the debutant Knights not far behind them finishing in 14th.
When: Saturday, 5th March, 1988
Score: Newcastle 4 - 28 Parramatta
Glenn Frendo (Full back)
Career Games Played: 62
Frendo, a Bulldogs junior, made his first-grade debut with them in 1986 before joining the Knights in 1988. He played fullback for the Knights in their inaugural season. After retirement, he worked in IT for a health fund in Newcastle.
Brian Quinton (Wing)
Career Games Played: 38
Known for his speed, Quinton played a few games in first grade with St George in 1987 before joining the Knights. He was the scorer of Newcastle's first-ever try back in the top grade. After Rugby League, he became a self-employed painter-decorator on the Gold Coast.
Gavin Hanrahan (Centre)
Career Games Played: 51
Hanrahan spent four years with Balmain before joining the Knights for their inaugural season in the NSWRL. He played only one season with Newcastle. After retirement, he worked as a solicitor and partner with a law firm in Newcastle.
Glenn Miller (Centre)
Career Games Played: 91
Miller had games with Penrith before playing for the Knights for five years, alternating between centre and wing. He even occasionally captained the team during 1988. Post-Rugby League, he is a self-employed carpenter, plumber, and developer and lives in Newcastle.
Rod Whitaker (Wing)
Career Games Played: 8
Whitaker joined the Knights from Cessnock in the local competition, making his debut in the inaugural game and playing the next four rounds. After footy, he worked as a coal miner and lives in Cessnock.
Robbie Tew (Five Eighth)
Career Games Played: 12
Tew joined the Knights in 1988 from the Redcliffe Dolphins and scored the new club's first-ever points via those two goals in this game. Injuries limited his playing time, but he was awarded Life Membership in 2020. After retiring from the game he worked as a registered property valuer in Newcastle.
Steve Walters (Halfback)
Career Games Played: 25
Walters - not that Steve - was a versatile utility back, joined the Knights from the local competition in 1988, and spending four years with the club. He worked as a truck driver after retirement and lives on the north coast.
David Boyd (Lock)
Career Games Played: 187
A powerful forward, Boyd had 13 years in the top grade after joining the Knights from the Bulldogs. He was part of the inaugural Knights and later also the Western Reds. After footy, he became a finance broker on the Gold Coast.
Sam Stewart (c) (Second Row)
Career Games Played: 151
One of the toughest and most formidable players of his era, Stewart was also a major force in the international game as captain of the Kiwis. He captained the Knights in their first season and was the new club's first life member. After leaving Newcastle in 1993, he finished his career in England. After leaving the game, he operated a graffiti-removal company on the Gold Coast.
Michael McKiernan (Second Row)
Career Games Played: 37
McKiernan played two seasons with the Knights after joining from local team Lakes United. After his footy career ended, he worked as a bricklayer in and around Newcastle.
David Thorne (Front Row)
Career Games Played: 40
Thorne played every game in the Knights' inaugural season and returned for one final game in 1991. Post-rugby, he became a merchant seaman and lives at Noraville.
Tony Townsend (Hooker)
Career Games Played: 45
Townsend, from Dungog, played for St George before relocating to join the Knights. He spent three years with the club, in and out of first grade and retired in 1990 to pursue a career in the NSW Police Force. He eventually rose within the force to be Police Superintendent at Raymond Terrace.
Tony Butterfield (Front Row)
Career Games Played: 259
Butterfield joined the Knights in 1988 and became a legend, playing 13 years and winning the 1997 premiership. After retirement he stayed in the Newcastle area and became the President of the Rugby League Professionals' Association.
GOLD COAST GIANTS
In a pulsating clash to kick off the 1988 NSWRL season, the Gold Coast/Tweed Heads Giants met the Canterbury Bankstown Bulldogs at Seagulls Stadium in Tweed Heads on Saturday, March 5th.
The Giants, in front of a home crowd of 5,280, took a lead into the halftime break with a score of 10-4. Queensland legend Chris Close etched his name into folklore with both tries for the Gold Coast. The Bulldogs rallied and pierced through the Giants' defence, with tries by Sandy Campbell, Terry Lamb, and Henry Raymond putting them in the lead and a final score of 21-10.
Mike Eden was the Giants' goal kicker, converting 1/2 attempts, while Terry Lamb had a terrible day with 1/5. Steve Mortimer's strategic field goal added an extra point.
The man at the centre of the storm, referee Eddie Ward, presided over a contest that saw 13 scrums contested by the Giants against the Bulldogs' 6. Penalties told a similar tale, with the Bulldogs gaining the upper hand at 12 against the Giants' 6. The Seagulls Stadium bore witness to a spectacle that would be remembered in the annals of rugby league history — a clash where the Bulldogs emerged victorious, etching their dominance on that March day in 1988.
Gold Coast - Tweed Heads Giants vs Canterbury Bankstown Bulldogs
When: Saturday, 5th March, 1988
Score: Newcastle 19 - 21 Parramatta
Mike EDEN (Full back):
Career Games Played: 127
Eden was best known as a Manly player, although he moved around a few clubs in his career. He played in the Grand Final for the Sea Eagles in his second ever first grade season, and finished his career on the Gold Coast. A solicitor, Eden stayed in Queensland and runs his own legal practice.
Paul SHEAHAN (Wing):
Career Games Played: 32
Of Sheahan’s 32 games in first grade footy, 31 were for Wests and 1 was for the Gold Coast. This game. After that, he became a competitive sprinter, running well into his 40s.
Chris CLOSE (Centre):
Career Games Played: 252
‘Choppy’ Close was a Rugby League legend, playing in the QRL comp, for Manly and for Australia before joining the Gold Coast. He spent a lot of time involved in top-level footy as a manager for the Maroons and was a pub owner in Rockhampton.
Mark ROSS (Centre):
Career Games Played: 124
Ross had a long career with Souths before moving to the Gold Coast where he stayed after retirement. His son, Nathan also played in the NRL for Newcastle. Mark remained involved in the game and was a coach, as well as being involved with Surf Living saving Queensland.
Bennett KING (Wing):
Career Games Played: 15
Probably the most interesting entry on this list, although you may not know it just by the name. Almost no other player on this entire list played less top level games of Rugby League. And yet, King was a PE teacher who turned his athletic prowess and training into a successful career as an international cricket coach: King took over from John Buchanan as coach of Queensland and eventually coached the West Indies.
Wayne ALBERTS (Five Eighth):
Career Games Played: 8
Alberts was from Thursday Island and although he didn’t play too many games of first grade, he did play for the Indigenous Allstars in 1992 as a second rower.
Geoff BAGNALL (Halfback):
Career Games Played: 110
The combative halfback played out his career on the Gold Coast, playing through the Giants and Seagulls eras. Like many in this team, he went on to play in England and after retirement continued his career as a teacher.
Russell BROWNING (Lock):
Career Games Played: 58
Although a Queensland junior, Browning made few first grade appearances and spent most of his career in the second division in England.
Eric KENNEDY (Second Row):
Career Games Played: 38
Kennedy played in the last Queensland Rugby League Grand Final before the entry of the two Queensland teams into the NSWRL and played only two seasons for the Gold Coast before heading to England.
Tony RAMPLING (Second Row):
Career Games Played: 139
Rampling played for four different NRL clubs in his career and he’d spend only the one season outside of Sydney clubs on the Gold Coast, returning to Souths in 1989.
Jim COWELL (Front Row):
Career Games Played: 40
Possibly most famous for copping a golly straight from the golden gob of ‘King’ Wally Lewis a year later, little is known of Cowell’s current whereabouts.
Billy JOHNSTONE (Hooker):
Career Games Played: 180
The inaugural Gold Coast captain, Jonnstone was a tough hooker and former professional boxer, who joined from Canterbury. He was 1983 'Dally M' Hooker of the Year and played for the Dogs in the 1985 grand final. After retiring, he worked as a club conditioner. Later, he joined the Cowboys and Gold Coast Titans before moving to the Northern Territory.
Peter SMITH (Front Row):
Career Games Played: 130
Smith, a former Bulldog, came back from the UK to play for the Giants. In his first season in First Grade, he was part of the losing Grand Final team with Canterbury. Stayed on the Gold Coast and became involved in junior footy, before becoming player welfare manager for the Titans.
These weren’t just games; they were the opening chapters in an epic saga of rugby league expansion.
The Brisbane Broncos burst onto the scene with a victory over the Manly Sea Eagles that still echoes through the annals of rugby league history. This wasn’t just a game; it was the dawn of a new era.
After nearly 80 years, Newcastle made a triumphant return to top-level Rugby League. Despite the result not going in their favour, the Novocastrians marked the start of an incredible journey that culminated in ARL and NRL premierships.
The Gold Coast Giants, despite a heart-stopping clash against the Bulldogs, couldn’t clinch a win in their debut game. But this was just the beginning. The Giants may have become the Seagulls, who became the Gladiators (for a minute), who were resurrected as the Chargers and now the Titans continue the legacy on the Gold Coast. Not just in the records of wins and losses, but in the diverse paths each player carved beyond the footy field.
These debut games were not just the start of a season; they were the beginning of stories that continue to unfold in the chapters of rugby league history as it expands beyond the Rugby League heartland of inner Sydney and beyond (have we reached China yet John Ribot?) So, let’s raise a toast to these unforgettable moments that shaped the sport we love today.