The Roar
The Roar

They are the Liberaces of league. Like Madonna and Maradona, Pele and Prince, these worthies need one handle only. One is plenty.

Think Joey and Matty, Rabbits and Gus. Think Benji, Robbie and Braith. Think Sterlo, Beaver, the great Fat Man.

And think, of course, of Manly coach, the funny, mad bastard called Des.

Yes, Desmond John Hasler. A one-off, a singular cat, a weirdo in a good way. An enigma.

He’s private, he’s a showman. Remember when he ripped a door off the hinges at Parramatta Stadium? People who knew thought setup – unscrewing hinges is a thing Des’d do. The man maintained innocence. Blamed the door. Blamed Channel Nine for filming it. Said he would pay for the hinges. Betcha the club did. Classic Des.

He doesn’t talk a lot about himself, yet there’s lots talked about him. He doesn’t like things written about him, yet he’ll read every word. Bet he reads this.

Des is musical. Des is a regular at Sunday night mass.

He keeps odd, mad hours. He’ll ring friends at 1am and ask, “Did I wake you?”

He has craggy features below Farrah Fawcett’s bangs (Google her, kids).

He’s familiar though we don’t really know him – few do.

He’s a good mad bastard, our Des.

Thomas Keneally wrote his biography in ‘93. His main takeaway was: “Des is very private”.

Must’ve been ripper read.

And so now he’s back at Brookvale, Saturday night, bopping melons against the great Craig Bellamy in a big-dog shoot-out, business end of the season.

And there he is, out the middle of Narrabeen with his footy shorts and bowed legs, barking away, revving the cement truck, circling wagons, instilling the mentality of the siege.

He’s a good mad bastard, our Des.

He’s a beauty.

Players’ Coach

Robbie Delmege was the 33-year-old chief executive of Delmege Property Group and the son of “Mad” Max Delmege, the developer who saved Manly from ruin after the terrible Northern Eagles.

The scion of the empire drove fast cars and wore boat shoes to society shindigs.

One day he parked his Porsche at Narrabeen to, presumably, have a look at training. Have a yarn. Because he could. He was Robbie Delmege.

And out onto the field he went.

“Oi!” came a roar from the middle of the park, followed by the piercing shrill of a pea-blown whistle. It was Des, of course, who halted the session, and strode with purpose towards the interloper.

“Robbie!” barked Des. “Robbie!

“Do I interrupt your work? Do I burst into your office unannounced?”

“Ah, no, Des, you don’t,” replied Delmege.

“Then get the fuck out of mine!”

And away our Robbie went, doing his best not to slink.

The Sea Eagles players enjoyed it. Des knew they would. The verbal was partly annoyance, partly show, partly big dog weeing on a tree.

He’ll do the same with journos.

Des Hasler

I was near the Narrabeen car park once having a yarn with Kieran Foran when a presence loomed in the periphery: Des.

You know that close talker on Seinfeld? It was like that – Des, up close, tight, on you. It was awkward, I deferred to him, motioned that player and coach should talk. They did. Shared a laugh.

Afterwards I continued with Foran. But Des had asked: “Who the boss?” And the answer was: “You, Dessie. You the boss.”

And good luck to him.

Des’s winning percentage as coach is nearly 60 per cent, which puts him in the elite, Bennett and Bellyache category. Like those worthies, players play for him.

He’s like a mad, fun uncle: quick with a quip; protective; and clearly tough, he’ll put a boot up your arse because he loves you. Players will run for a man like that. They will work and sweat and bleed for him. He’s got their back, and they know it.

When the Brett Stewart saga broke ten years ago after the Eagles’ ill-fated season launch at Manly Wharf Bar, Des took control.

He spent a hot minute deciding that Stewart was innocent; that it was an extortion attempt by the father of a girl who’d accused Stewart of sexual assault.

A man can tell if a young bloke is lying, particularly those with whom one spends every day. Des was a teacher once – he knows young blokes. He knows they aren’t sociopaths or criminal masterminds; they’re largely guileless, innocents, boys.

Des went with Stewart to the police station, to court, out in public. It was probably the chief executive’s job. Hasler made it his. No arguments.

The Stewart family will never forget it.

In 2007, Rugby League Week’s players poll declared Jamie Lyon was the game’s “Most Overrated Player”. It was always a vexed topic, always reported on. It could’ve been the Braith Anasta award, the Willie Mason. It was more about the weight of a player’s press against their play.

And so Des summoned the nearest League Week journo to his office, and ripped in, demanded to know if the magazine understood what it had done to poor Jamie.

The poor “kid” was bereft, apparently, his confidence shot.

Talk to Lyon today, he’ll tell you he didn’t give a stuff, though he did appreciate Des going into bat. He could hear it out the door.

And there, friends, is very much the rub.

Another year, a Daily Telegraph journo rang Terry Lamb about the travails of the Bulldogs. Lamb was half-cut at a golf day and declared that Hasler wasn’t the right coach for Canterbury, didn’t understand the “culture”, a few other things. There followed a back page screamer.

Des’ players know it. And they love him for it.

The writer was baled up in the tunnel at Belmore Oval, lambasted in front of players.

The Tele, like League Week, was just reporting its news, warts and all.

But Des, like Wayne Bennett, saw it as an attack on his players, his club; his people. Himself? Maybe a bit. But he’s more about the players. And the verbals are part pantomime, part protection by deflection.

And like Bennett’s boys, Des’ players know it. And they love him for it.

Teacher Man

Des turned up at Brookvale in 1984 after Scott Fulton tipped off his dad, Bob, that there was a Penrith player teaching at St Pius X College at Chatswood.

Des had always told students it wasn’t him in the Big League program, scoring 8s and 9s in the ratings.

But the boys knew. Bloke was mad fit. And hard. There were veins in his calves like cables.

Bob Fulton brought Des to Narrabeen for a trial. Watched him score four tries. Told head office: “Sign him right now”. Smart move, Boze.

Years later, Des played for Australia. He would play 256 games for Manly and win two premierships (’87 and ’96). He went on Roo Tours in ’86 and ’90. He was so good he forced Phil Blake out.

In ‘83, Blake had scored 27 tries. Hasler was a halfback without much of a pass. But Fulton knew: he was fit; he was tough; he would run all day.

And he would never give up. Ever.

Blokes kept fit in the ‘80s – but Des was next level. He was on the Wayne Pearce train. Outside the boxer and Bulldog Billy Johnstone – who would go on to be a conditioning legend – there weren’t a lot on the train.

Des Hasler of the Manly Sea Eagles offloads the ball

Paul Vautin was certainly not on it. Those days, Manly trained Tuesday and Thursday evenings, and Saturday morning. That was plenty for Fat.

Once on a day off, Des said to Fat, “Blue [Des’ name for the flame-haired Vautin], how about we meet down at Long Reef and do some run-throughs?”.

Fatty lived nearby, said righto, see you there.

Long Reef headland goes from sea level adjacent the 17th tee of the golf course, rising 25m for 400m to the lookout. It’s not Kokoda. But run up it a few times it’ll mess you up.

“Right,” said Des. “We’re gonna sprint up and walk back.”

After three of these run-throughs, Vautin called time.

“I nearly called an ambulance,” he smiles. “And Des did twenty – up this bloody hill, jogging back.

“He was the hardest, fittest bloke I ever played with. He was my favourite bloke to play with.”

In the gym, Des would hang off the roof, doing isometrics, or something, blokes didn’t know what it was. It was just Des, hanging off things.

Des was working his core before it was called one. He was ripping off Pilates-style moves before it was a thing. He was Spiderman in Manly kit, inverted, mullet dangling.

He’d get on the bike machine, ride flat out for a minute forwards, then flat out a minute backwards.

He’d get onto the field, hop for a hundred metres. Hundred right leg, hundred left leg.

People would gaze out the dressing shed windows – what the hell is he doing?

He wrung every ounce of ability from 75 kilograms. He was a greyhound with muscles.

There’s an apocryphal story that Des would sprints up Brookie Hill after games. It’s never been confirmed. But it’s telling that people who know Des could not discount it.

“Sounds like something he’d do,” said a mate.

As Ivan Drago said of Rocky, he is a piece of iron.

Mad Science

As Trent Barrett could tell you, in the arms race of sports science, other NRL clubs have caught and passed Manly. But back in the day, they were America, if not Russia.

Des was using GPS before anybody. He was using Steve Dank and calves’ blood well before Dank stank up Cronulla.

After Manly won the comp in 2011 (beating Melbourne Storm 40-0), they went to England for the World Club Challenge.

Des arranged for a small group of Manly’s senior folks and sports science types to visit Manchester United, who spent a fortune on sports science.

Des came away thinking that for the cost of it, there was little that was ahead of what he was doing at Narrabeen.

Des has never slept much. He’ll be up at 3am, thinking.

For several years he commuted between Collaroy and Belmore. As the crow flies it’s 35km. As a Sydney car drives; it’s an hour without traffic or lights, which there never ever is not.

Yet there he was, first there at 06:00, last to leave at 19:30.

He would beat traffic as Gary Jack would beat the toll road to Wollongong. Preparation is key. It always has been. Practice. Prepare. Put in, get out.

“He’s so committed to what he does,” says Steve Menzies. “He’s just relentless. You didn’t really see that playing with him.

“But being coached by him, you realise how meticulous he is.”

Since he came back late last year, the Sea Eagles board gave him free rein.

He once got them to the top doing it his way. They figure he can do it again, even if he did leave both his previous coaching positions – one at this very Manly – acrimoniously.

“Dessie doesn’t play political games very well,” says a Manly insider. “He positions himself as the boss of ‘his’ area and that’s how he operates.

“That’s been challenged twice and out the door he’s gone twice.”

So Des will do it his way – for good or ill. He will run the football department – and effectively the entire club – like a fiefdom.

He was responsible for everything at the Bulldogs – recruitment, job lot. He tried to sign Tom Trbojevic but the Manly junior couldn’t leave his brother or the beaches.

He did bring some serious meat – Sam Kasiano, James Graham, Tony Williams, David Klemmer, Frank Pritchard. Loves a big human, Des.

Des Hasler

And the footy the Dogs played in 2012 (minor premiers, grand finalists) and 2014 (grand finalists) was best practice. Big humans played the ball; hot backs scorched the earth. And repeat.

Since then; not so much. Indeed they lost more than Bulldogs could bear.

They played Manly at Brookvale early in 2017 and looked dinkum listless. Against a pack full of the above-mentioned monsters, Martin Taupau had a blinder – five offloads, two hundred metres. Daly Cherry-Evans ran riot off the back of it. Manly won 36-nil. The Dogs were not a happy team at Hawthorn.

Yet Des ploughed inexorably on; sure of his rightness. Sure of a playing style that wasn’t producing. Sure of a practice of back-ended deals to keep Canterbury under the cap.

And away they went, somewhere else: Taupau, Kasiano, Graham, Klemmer, Dale Finucane, Mick Ennis, Damien Cook.

When Josh Reynolds went to Wests Tigers, part of Belmore’s soul went with him.

After finishing seventh in 2016 and eleventh in 2017, the club tried to punt Des without out paying him out. Des was not having that, oh no. He sued for $2 million. The matter was settled out of court. Don’t come between Des and a dollar coin, is a tired old trope that ‘s tried and true.

Tales abound

Des loved country-and-western music and sang in a band. He would travel by train from Penrith to Circular Quay and busk for change. After he’d earned a few bob he’d catch the Manly Ferry.

His wife drove a Toyota Land Cruiser; he’d give her $5 for petrol.

He once picked up 50 cents in the race at Brookvale and put it in his footy sock.

There’s more to him than skin-flint. He remains mates with parents from his kids’ school. He’s involved at church. He’s mates with Thomas Kenneally. He worked with Zali Steggall in training for the Olympics.

He taught at St Pius X at Chatswood and also St Augustine’s next to Brookvale Oval.

Des’s brother Danny was a teacher at St Augustine’s, too. An elite-level long-distance runner, he died of brain cancer in 2013. At the funeral service, Des stood up and sang a song they’d sung together as kids. Unaccompanied. Unadorned. A lone voice in a church.

“It was pretty amazing,” says a mate. “He’s a pretty amazing bloke.”

Sea Eagles coach Des Hasler looks on during a Manly Warringah Sea Eagles NRL training session
Sea Eagles coach Des Hasler congratulates Daly Cherry-Evans
Des Hasler congratulates George Rose
Sea Eagles coach Des Hasler engages with fans

Des and Manly 2.0

Even with four Origin players and several internationals, the consensus wisdom from the punditry was that Manly were light on for 2019.

I had them tenth, top-eight at a pinch. I was among the most optimistic.

But Des has them humming.

There are superstars at fullback, halfback and lock.

The prop forwards – Martin Taupau and Addin Fonua-Blake – are thumping berserkers.

Dylan Walker is very good as is Api Koroisau who can’t get a gig because of Manase Fainu.

Curtis Sironen, Jorge Taufua, Joel Thompson and Trent Hodgkinson round out a solid senior player claque.

And Hasler has them fitter than trout.

Sessions are long. Lot of defence. They kept Canberra to two tries two weeks ago.

Players are tested under fatigue.

And there is, as ever, Des’s special sauce: he’ll fire them up with tales of hate. With lies about misdeeds by opponents, and enemies.

Under Trent Barrett, the Eagles didn’t have that. Barrett’s a pro footy coach. Composed, controlled. The board wanted a Manly Man. Geoff Toovey can’t have been far away. But Des is a Corso paver.

And prior to tonight’s last hit-out before the finals, Des will be circling wagons.

In the offseason there were security guards at Narrabeen protecting players from reporters. Siege mentality is the new black.

The players liked Barrett, how could you not? Top bloke. But they’ll bleed for Des.

On the training paddock, it’s torture and then fun. It’s a fine line and always has been. Des knows how far to push men, when to release the valve.

Before he was injured, post-training hijinks would see Tom Trbojevic plonked under the posts as Des rained bombs on him until he dropped one. Normal practice, sure. Difference was Tommy had to hang onto each ball that he caught. His record was four. The deal was if Tommy caught five, the whole team gets the Sunday off.

They’ll go to war for Des. They know he’s a Manly Man.

The players would watch on and ride their fullback like a long-odds plunge.

Though they love Des like an uncle, he lives in a different world to his players.

He is a devotee, for instance, of The Art of War by the Chinese warlord, Sun Tzu, written in 500BC. He’s always re-reading it, picking out gems. He was tipped onto it by former Wallabies coach Rod Macqueen, who lived near Des in Collaroy.

But as it was for Shane Warne (who thought John Buchanan as a coach was as useful as the team bus), for most league players, the war book is so much malarkey. They barely know Clive Churchill, much less Winston.

But they’ll go to war for Des. They know he’s a Manly Man. They respect his hardness.

And they like the mad old buzzard.

Vautin reckons he’s mellowed a little. “He’s not ripping doors off hinges any more.”

Manly Warringah Sea Eagles coach Des Hasler attends the 2011 NRL Grand Final Fan Day

Written by Matt Cleary

This is an edited version of a piece which originally appeared in Inside Sport magazine in March.

Matt Cleary is a Sydney-based writer with a particular fondness for golf. He is the author of A Short History of Golf (with a foreword by Greg Norman) and co-hosts a podcast called The Mole.

He has contributed other longforms to The Roar before, including this one on the shift in Origin dynasties from Queensland to New South Wales..

You can follow him on Twitter at @JournoMatCleary.

Editing and design by Stirling Coates

All images are credit: Getty Images