A rugby league civil war is ignited by a game that had it all

'On paper.. they can't get near them.'

This was a much repeated line in the glut of predictions and forecasts for the inaugural 'Battle for Brisbane.' Looking at the Broncos and Dolphins lineups ahead of kickoff it could be deemed a fair call. Yet the game of rugby league has never, nor will it ever, be played on paper. Especially if one of the teams is coached by Wayne Bennett.

The depleted Dolphins didn't just get near the fit, firing and full strength Broncos. They performed as equals on a humid Friday evening at a ground lauded by many as the home of rugby league. Bennett's men showcased their worth before a tick over 51,000 fans. This wasn't a Round 4 NRL fixture; it was chapter one of a rivalry that's been driven by three quarters of a century of Brisbane rugby league history.

The Dolphins home game delivered on the promise of a rivalry to rattle the very foundations of rugby league. 'Bigger than Roosters vs Rabbits,' was the claim by some, a claim that could very well go on to be vindicated, judging by the spirit of the encounter.

"Mate, it's like State of Origin," Damien is sitting with a group of his mates at the Caxton Hotel, which has declared its allegiance to the Broncos. It's just after 3.30pm and the group are tucking into an early dinner. Damien's flown in from Singapore to be here. Going on eight years ago he flew in from Shanghai to witness the Broncos and Cowboys duke out one of the all time classic grand finals.

"It's the Red Derby," Damien enthuses.

"The Red Hill Broncos vs. the Redcliffe Dolphins."

You know you're not allowed to call them Redcliffe, don't you mate?

"I'm a North Queensland supporter. They're called North Queensland because they're from North Queensland. May the best team win, but you know who the real winners are? The owners of the Caxton. There's already a lineup for a beer."

4.30pm arrives and the Origin'esque sense grows. The first bar you see when you enter Caxton Street is the Lord Alfrted hotel. There's a giant banner draped across its entry. 'Home of the Dolphins.' It's not dissimilar to many of the other banners that have popped up around Brisbane throughout the week. Both Broncos and Dolphins propaganda, lining opposite ends of some of the CBD's main streets. Slogans like 'Fabric of the City,' 'Heart of Brisbane,' and 'Spirit of Brisbane' have been applied by both teams, indicative of the civil struggle unfolding.

Donna and Paul are enjoying a drink at the Lord Alfred. Donna is wearing the Broncos all new 'city jersey,' perhaps inspired by the 50 foot version of it that was draped over the Kangaroo Point Cliffs earlier in the week. Paul is wearing a Dolphins polo.

"I've always been a Bronco," Donna tells ESPN. "I grew up going to games at Lang Park with my Dad. We saw the first ever Broncos game with Wally Lewis."

"I love Wayne Bennett- he's the goat."

"I'm actually a Bulldogs fan," Paul reveals, as Donna rolls her eyes. "But I go for the Redcliffe Dolphins in the QLD Cup. I don't really care who wins, but it's good for the Broncos to be kept honest."

Vanessa and Bec are two besties, both sporting caps with the slogan 'Dolphins: since '47.'

Of course '47' refers to 1947, and the establishment of the 'Redcliffe District Rugby League Club,' known then as 'Shellgrit.' The club gained acceptance into Brisbane's premier first grade competition in 1959. They became the Dolphins and won a maiden competition in 1965. Six more premierships were contested between then and 1987, all of them lost.

Then the Broncos came along, entering the NSW Rugby League in 1988. Redcliffe had lost to Brothers in a BRL grand final at a packed Lang Park the year before, and just like that, the competition faded into obscurity. More success came for the Dolphins, winning competitions across Brisbane and the QLD first grade competitions, many of them contested at the famous ground at the end of Caxton Street.

Dolphins fans like Vanessa and Bec view the 'Battle for Brisbane' as not only a home game, but a genuine homecoming.

"My Dad played for Redcliffe in the 70's," Bec informs ESPN, explaining why she proudly sports the '47' cap.

"My two boys, they love hearing the stories about the glory days. But nothing like this has ever happened before."

"Let's go Reddo!" Vanessa shouts the old Redcliffe chant.

"I grew up going to Dolphin oval, I've had more than a few big nights at Dolphins leagues. They're Redcliffe's team, but Brisbane has always been their city."

5.30pm and the bottom of Caxton Street has become a heaving mass. One can't help but notice the kids - many of them arriving in Broncos jerseys - proudly sporting the Dolphins rubber head fins. Maybe a bit more Papa Smurf than hardened rugby league, but as free merchandise goes, these things are a stroke of genius.

There's a fan zone next to the Statues of Legends at the front of the ground. It's been dubbed the 'Fins Zone' today. Young people are queuing up to try their hand at fishing for toy rubber Dolphins from a giant inflatable pool. Reel one in, check the number on the back, and take home a piece of Dolphins merchandise corresponding to the number. Every child wins a prize; a keyring, cap, maybe even a backpack. A new generation being wooed.

Ava and her sister Lizzy are both wearing Broncos scarves and Dolphins fins. Lizzy is actually wearing two fins on closer inspection. Who are they going for?

"I caught a Dolphin!" Lizzy beams when ESPN poses the question.

So you're going for the Dolphins?

"Bwoncos! And Dolphins!"

What about you Ava?

"Oh you know, these scarves are pretty stylish, but who doesn't want a fin. Fins up!"

Nearby, Wally Lewis is smiling and signing autographs. Both adults and children queue up to meet him. Does King Wally think this atmosphere is Origin'esque?

"It's at least 80% of it," Lewis tells ESPN between signings. "It might not have that pure hate that Origin has, but they'll go out there and really get stuck in to each other."

"You'd back them (Broncos) on paper, of course you would," the man widely regarded as the greatest to play the game confirms.

"But gee whiz. I'm not prepared to write Wayne Bennett off. He'll have these young blokes up for the fight of their lives."

Telling them that and making them believe it are surely two different things though Wally?

"Not when it's Wayne Bennett saying it mate. He'll just want them to do their best, and if that's not enough that'll be ok. As long as they give it everything they can."

"It wouldn't be as big as it is (without Bennett). What he does with them this year will serve them for a long time."

Wally's words evoke memories of a sliding doors moment for Wayne Bennett. That time in 2008, when he was a whisper away from taking the reigns at the Cowboys. A boardroom disagreement saw the deal scuppered, Bennett ended up at the Dragons, and won a competition two years later. One ponders what might have been if Wayne had been entrenched in Townsville and politely declined the call when the Dolphins came after their first and most important marquee man.

6.30pm and the famous ground is now well and truly heaving.

Susan stops by for a quick chat on her way in. She's a little bit overwhelmed by the sheer enormity of it all.

"I won the tickets," she tells ESPN, her voice quiet amid the din.

"It's the first game I've been to in 40 years. It's changed a lot."

Sue is going for the Dolphins because they facilitated the ticket contest. She's brought her son-in-law Grant along to experience the occasion.

"I'm an AFL fan, but I really admire the Dolphins grit," says Grant.

"They seem like a team you could get behind."

7.00pm and red fireworks burst skyward from both ends of the ground. Seven former Broncos run out for the Dolphins, deafening cheers greet both sides. The Broncos are wearing the city jersey; an away strip on this occasion (albeit one draped with Brisbane landmarks and roadmaps).

The match unfolds like a highlight reel of rugby league. You might even call it 'Origin'esque.'

The Bennett factor is there when the Dolphins push Selwyn Cobbo over the touchline to extinguish the Broncos first real scoring opportunity. Tessi Niu displays utter faith in his inside man to shepherd the hulking winger over the paint, and injures his knee in the process. He stays on, an impassive Bennett observes from the coaches box. The game has grit.

Brisbane are making errors and generally performing in far scrappier fashion than they have so far this season. Completion rates are well down on the 2023 average of around 80%. Reputations mean nothing for Tom Gilbert; who's scathing appreciation of a wayward Adam Reynolds pass sparks a spicy push and shove.

Felise Kaufusi is on the big screen a few times; seated behind his coach and watching on forlornly as the Dolphins rattle the Broncos with line speed, numbers and intent. The Broncos have the air of being ahead, but just can't quite muster any better than the 4-0 scoreline provided by Jesse Arthars in the 22nd minute.

Anthony Milford is back in first grade, but staying pretty quiet. Gilbert, on his fourth rampage of the year to date, takes down Kodi Nikorima. The game has its blood, Nikorima's night ends before it really starts.

The Broncos are displaying the defensive resolve they sorely missed in the back half of 2022, and the three years before. Reece Walsh and Ezra Mam execute gutsy try savers on opposite edges. The desperation is there in spades.

Halftime sees 'Dolphins' chants ringing out across the ground. They're countered by 'Broncos' chants.

When Brisbane hold onto the ball, class oozed. Walsh sets up Cobbo with the type of play that makes the entire competition shiver. Amid the errors and brutality, the game has its razzle and its dazzle.

Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow is all polish in every kind of play. Even his second half trysaver of Arthars looks slick. Cobbo is spooked off the ball by a rampaging, heavily strapped Niu. The charging footsteps of a united chase line - a hungry pod of Dolphins - showcasing the elite commitment that had even Wally Lewis reluctant to tip a winner.

Jarrod Wallace barges over in the 57th minute and the fins are well and truly up. Kevin Walters gets Payne Haas immediately back onto the field. The tide is turning, and the highest calibre weaponry is required to stave the flow.

Sean O'Sullivan's exit from the game and possibly the season gives the game its slice of heartache. The likeable and productive halfback leaves the field, shortly before Mark Nichols gives the game its most resilient moment. His spoil of a would-be 'Air Jordan' moment for Cobbo; surely destined for the front rowers hall of fame.

Everyone loves a fairytale, and even in the world of make believe you just don't write scripts like it. Milford grubbers. Hammer pounces. Has a player ever started better for a first year club? One for the sports bar/ water cooler post match. Advantage Dolphins, orchestrated by the Broncos former one million dollar man.

Things are tense. Even Bennett looks anxious. Walters can't sit down. The entire stadium is absolutely pulsating.

Reynolds surgically opens up the Dolphins' defence to put Kurt Capewell through. Capewell runs in slow motion, but good luck stopping him, even if you are Tabuai-Fidow. Milford and Brenko Lee are left clutching by Reynolds' eyes-up assault. He carves over a curler from the corner, and the game has its brilliance.

The tension and drama of the final minutes is difficult to put into words. Safe to say, things are a bit hectic on the field, and charged in the stands. Reece Walsh spills it as the Broncos cling to a 2-point lead, and the rugby league gods appear to be laughing at all the 'on paper' experts.

The Dolphins are surely going to somehow do it again. How? No one knows, but many will speculate. They're going to do it again, but first they need to crack this Bronco wall one more time. On the attack, last tackle, Milford drills a grubber. An all or nothing play, that ends up in the hands of Kotoni Staggs.

A one time NSW origin centre and a man blooded in the NRL by none other than Wayne Bennett, shows how much he wants it. A 100 metres covered, desperate tackles busted, persevering defence outpaced.

A 'civil war,' a 'red derby,' 'Origin'esque.' Call it what you like. Chapter one is written, the Broncos win it, but good luck picking it on paper.

"We were behind on the scoreboard but that's the only place we lost tonight," Bennett tells media post match, lamenting the loss of troops, but praising the tenacity of those who fought.

"We've set a standard for the rest of the time, haven't we?"

Battle stations.