Des goes from singing for his supper to making Eagles rock

Almost 40 years ago now, Des Hasler would sing for his supper. Literally.

"He was in a band when he was at teacher's college and that's how he paid his rent, busking or playing with the band," Geoff Toovey remembers.

"That's how he supplemented his uni days when he was out at Penrith."

'Legal Tender' with Hasler front and centre, has even been used as a motivational tactic during his first stint in charge at Manly, players rewarded with their coach in concert after stringing together a month of wins.

"He can play and sing even with that shitty gravely speaking voice," confirms one Sea Eagles source.

Two years ago to the day, the Bulldogs gave Hasler his marching orders.

Some wondered whether the career coach was suddenly due for a vocation change.

Canterbury certainly played like the game had passed their coach by. The two grand finals in Hasler's first three years at Belmore felt a lifetime away.

Further back still, the two grand final triumphs in charge of Manly.­­­­

Hasler wouldn't have been the first coach with a couple of premiership rings to disappear with little trace.

Hands sitting idle last year, another former Manly coach – Toovey – convinced his predecessor they should take Hasler's old tinnie out for a spin.

They got out once about 12 months ago, and today Toovey still has Hasler's boat in safe keeping.

"He doesn't use it!" Toovey exclaims.

"We got it ready, then he got the Manly job and all of a sudden he's got no time again."

Hasler's patience reportedly wears thin with fishing. Singing for his supper too would apparently put a strain on the finances.

But with Manly battered, bruised, yet still believing in themselves when very few others have done so leading into Friday's sudden-death clash with Souths, Hasler can still coach.

Old Dogs, new fans

Two years on from the Canterbury exit that ended in an out-of-court settlement, Hasler has done the impossible.

He's got his old boss Raelene Castle in the maroon and white corner.

"I've always disliked Manly, it just comes with the territory as a North Sydney Bears fan," Castle tells NRL.com.

"But here I am checking how they're going, cheering for them. I bumped into Daly Cherry-Evans in Perth when he was over there for Origin and I told DCE that.

Des Hasler took the Bulldogs to grand finals in 2012 and 2014.
Des Hasler took the Bulldogs to grand finals in 2012 and 2014.

"All because of Des, because he's a genuinely good fella and I believe he can be successful."

That belief cost Castle, now Rugby Australia chief executive, the same role at the Bulldogs in 2017.

She declines to comment on Hasler's or her own exit from the Bulldogs.

No need for Castle to throw stones at her old kingdom. But she and Hasler still text and talk most weeks.

Conversations at Canterbury could become a "battle".

Hasler, having come from the demountables and shoestring Sea Eagles budgets, suddenly had one of the biggest football budgets in the game, riches flowing like the waterfall out the front of Canterbury League Club.

"He made my life really difficult every single week," Castle says.

"Because he demanded support and was always requesting additional support for his football program. In my view that's exactly the job of a coach so I don't have any issue with that at all.

"They should always be fighting for what's good for their football program. It's how they take the nos that is the important part.

"We certainly had our battles over that, but above that at all times was respect in the way we worked together and that’s a credit to him as both a person and a coach."

Now back at Manly, Hasler is working with the facilities Trent Barrett couldn't.

The money simply isn't there for the latest and greatest in gadgetry, for so long Hasler's most recognised hallmark.

But the science of people has always been his most productive study.

Des Hasler and Kieran Foran were central figures in Manly's 2011 premiership.
Des Hasler and Kieran Foran were central figures in Manly's 2011 premiership.

Specifically, his people. Recruitment guru Noel Cleal, trainer Don Singe and mind coach Jon Novak are again on Hasler's staff after all were punted from Canterbury.

Former players Michael Monaghan, Chad Randall, Brett Stewart and Matt Ballin are present too along with assistant John Cartwright.

When the wolves were at the Dogs' door after an ugly 2016 finals loss to Penrith, Canterbury's board were urged by internal and external influences to back or sack Hasler on the spot.

They did neither, eventually re-signing him six months later, after overhauling his football department and ultimately only delaying the inevitable.

How did it affect him?

"I think the issues at Canterbury did affect him, because it challenged his integrity," Manly patriarch Bob Fulton says.

"I think that's the simplest way of putting it."

The inference is the salary cap mess left behind from Hasler's tenure, one from which Canterbury are still recovering.

Back-ended contracts and a roster rebuild that he backed himself to pull off.

A playing group that still loved Hasler, but could no longer respond to his methods and ultimately perform for him, dictated that he wouldn't get the chance.

Instead, he got what he needed.

Symbiotic Sea Eagles

"There's a word used by [NFL guru] Vince Lombardi in motivational videos he did years and years ago," Fulton begins.

"Symbiosis. It means mutual benefit. That's exactly what's happened with Des and the club.

"Manly needed Des and Des needed Manly. It just went hand in glove."

So how did Des need to change?

Manly's Des Hasler and Terry Hill celebrate the 1996 grand final win
Manly's Des Hasler and Terry Hill celebrate the 1996 grand final win ©NRL Photos

The man himself hasn't shifted from the polite deference he has employed for years with the media.

"Focus on the players, mate. Take care," was Hasler's response when this story was put to him.

Which is what Hasler has done, not that he didn't at Canterbury.

But with the move back to Manly, it's back to basics more than ever, coaching footballers to play football.

"He moves with the times and he's done that this year," Fulton says.

"He had to adjust to the players he had.

"He's had to rely on players that he didn't know. He would've had an idea, but he's summed them up and worked out how to get the best out of them.

"There's different types of coaches in the NRL. I think about half the coaches in the NRL care and half are about themselves.

"Half of them are there and they understand people. I think the other half - I won't say who they are - are in it for themselves.

"That squad needed some love and care, and Des is a very caring person."

Jack Gosiewski is playing through a pelvis injury that's required surgery for months and should have him on the sidelines alongside Tom Trbojevic, Joel Thompson, Sironen, Morgan Boyle and Taniela Paseka.

Instead he's playing the best footy of his career, same as Brendan Elliot, Reuben Garrick, Brad Parker, Moses Suli, Fainu, Sironen and more.

All bar Parker were tried and tested at other clubs first, yet are all playing above their perceived weight to defy an injury toll that should have hobbled them last week against Cronulla.

Manly prop Addin Fonua-Blake.
Manly prop Addin Fonua-Blake. ©Gregg Porteous/NRL Photos

"He's somehow brought belief into the team," Gosiewski offers.

"I've never really had it individually where – I don't know how he does it, to be honest – but I'm going into games just knowing we're going to win.

"It's a belief thing that he's instilled in us somehow, he's a bit of a wizard that way."

Probably more teaching than trickery. Upon his return to Narrabeen last November, Suli was teased, then cuddled immediately.

"Finally, I've got you now," Hasler grinned, having unsuccessfully tried to sign him as a 17-year-old for the Bulldogs.

Suli was then banned from ballwork sessions for a month until his fitness was brought up to scratch.

That Manly squad needed some love and care, and Des is a very caring person

Bob Fulton

He lost 12 kilos before round one, and has gone on to enjoy a breakout year.

Ballin oversees Manly's Jersey Flegg side as well as player welfare and education at the club, having won the 2008 and 2011 titles as Hasler's hooker.

"As a player you just don't want to let him down, and you know that he wants you to play well for your sake, not his," Ballin says.

"He works out how to talk to guys and get his message across to each of them, and then as a team as well.

"And I think people see just how hard he works, it's impossible to miss.

"You can’t help but want to put in when someone puts in that effort for you."

Working out a way

Manly's roster is not dissimilar to the one Hasler found when he arrived at Belmore at the end of 2011.

Talented and far better than their win-loss column, but by no means the strongest going. Props as playmakers made the Bulldogs a different beast at first under Hasler.

But by the end the sight of a front-rower taking charge on fourth tackle was hard to watch.

In 2019, Manly are playing through the line rather than at it.

Hasler will always live and breathe numbers, so below are probably the only words he likes out of the 1700-plus making up this piece.

Manly's 12.3 offloads a game has them ranked third in the NRL, with Curtis Sironen (46), Manase Fainu (43) and Marty Taupau (40) all in the top 10 as players.

Taupau and Addin Fonua-Blake occupy the same rare air for post-contact metres.

Fainu, Daly Cherry-Evans and Dylan Walker are thriving off the front foot.

Most importantly, they're chancing their arm with it. Hasler's obsession with completion rates and getting play-the-balls in certain zones of the field made the Bulldogs an easy, boring read.

Fourteen per cent of Manly's tries have come from outside the opposition's 40-metre line, again putting them in the NRL's top five for that stat.

Their error rate sits them in the bottom third of the competition. If they make a mistake, they'll back themselves to defend it.

"I think with Des, the thing he prides above all else is hard work," Jake Trbojevic says. "Whoever he's got working under him, he just wants a buy into working hard.

"This was one of the hardest off-seasons ever. And I think mentally it toughened a lot of us up. We had some bad results last year, no doubt. We needed that mental toughness put into us.

"We've seen results come off the back of our defence this year and I think that's where it comes from."

And so, it will be against South Sydney at ANZ Stadium on Friday night.

Hasler and Manly are back at work, the Sea Eagles winning and singing once again.

Thankfully, Hasler doesn't have to.