Des Hasler used to sing for his supper. About four decades ago his band, Legal Tender, had a small but loyal following as they gigged their way through Sydney’s Rocks region.
“It was mostly acoustic music, some Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, way back in my wild uni days,” recalls the frontman with the gravelly voice.
“We were the opening act at the Hero of Waterloo on a Wednesday and The Orient on a Friday. Very small following. Any way to get a feed.”
It was one of the various vocations Hasler has taken on, always in his own inimitable style, before arriving at his latest. They included teaching gigs at St Pius and St Augustine’s Colleges and a playing career documented by national treasure Thomas Keneally.
What he has subsequently achieved in the coach’s box is worthy of another tome. It all began on March 13, 2004, Hasler’s first game with the clipboard. The first of the 399 matches Hasler has since overseen.
“I can’t even remember it,” Hasler says. “Isn’t that terrible? It was such a long time ago.”
For the record, Hasler recorded a first-up win, 24-20 against the Cowboys up in Townsville. The rookie coach had to wait a further seven weeks for his second victory.
These would have been testing times for even the most experienced coach, let alone a newbie. Manly were not the superpower they had been in the past or were to become in the years to come. Their marriage with North Sydney had just been annulled and, had it not been for the investment of Max Delmege, the Sea Eagles would have suffered the same fate as the Bears.
This was a battle for survival and leading it, with a pith helmet covering the bouffant, was Hasler.
“When I took over, it was pretty dire times,” Hasler says. “There was nothing in the bank and wasn’t resourced well anyway. It was always going to be a rebuild job.”
And so Hasler began the work of rebuilding Fortress Brookvale, brick by brick. In his exit interview, previous mentor Trent Barrett lamented the lack of tools at his disposal. One can only imagine what he would have made of the joint circa 2004.
“There wasn’t much in the cupboard as far as money. It was a complete fixer,” Hasler continues. “I remember our gym, it was in a carpark underneath a building in Brookvale. It was a lot of toil early.
“You have to take that medicine early as you start that rebuild and get the club’s identity back again.”
The job required a Manly man and Hasler fitted the bill. He played for the club when they were the Silvertails and opted to build on the foundations laid by Arko (Ken Arthurson) and Bozo (Bob Fulton). That the rest of the rugby league community, still mourning the death of the Bears, hated them was an added bonus.
“Everybody followed two teams – their own team and the team playing Manly on that particular day,” Hasler says. “All that was forged in Manly’s early history. Having played for Manly and coming through, after the Super League war and the Northern Eagles, it was about establishing Manly’s character again.
“That wasn’t too hard. I was very fortunate the club had identity already, it already had it’s tribalism in a way. It was just about building and creating its history.”
The Des Hasler shoe story. There are hundreds of yarns out there, told and retold, that paint a picture of the eccentric genius that is Desmond John Hasler. The shoe story has been told in hushed tones before but rarely, if ever, by the man himself, who indulged the Herald ahead of his milestone match.
So here it is …
It’s 1987 and Hasler has a blinder for Manly that results in man-of-the-match honours. His award is a pair of Doc Martens shoes that become his pride and joy.
A decade later and Hasler is the club’s strength-and-conditioning coach, and a ruthless taskmaster at that. He is metaphorically walking all over his players in those bloody Doc Martens and they have had enough. When the right boot mysteriously disappears, an unexpected culprit emerges.
“Stephen Menzies,” Hasler says. “Don’t believe that schoolboy-ish, butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-my-mouth look. He is a sinister, criminal mastermind and orchestrated the whole thing.
“He got Nic Kosef and John Hopoate to steal my beloved Doc Martens shoe. They were the brain and the brawn, there wasn’t much beauty among them.
“I got a ransom note two days later, saying ‘Ease up on the training or you will never see your shoe again’. It was cut out with letters from the newspaper, serial-killer style.”
This was a test. Hasler could relent and the shoe would be returned unharmed. Or he could flog his charges to within an inch of their lives, with all the sadistic cruelty he could muster, to show them who was boss.
He chose option two.
“The next training session I absolutely tore into them, I ripped into them. It was one of the biggest training sessions,” Hasler says.
Two days pass. Another ransom note appears.
“Listen,” it reads. “We are deadly serious. Ease up or you will never see the shoe again.”
To underscore the point, the shoelace was attached to the note, cut up into tiny pieces.
And on it went. Hasler keeps flogging his troops. Further correspondence, sometimes attached with photos of the shoe in distress, would emerge. All the while, the left shoe remains in Hasler’s possession, just in case, despite entreaties from Mrs Hasler to throw the goddamn thing out.
A decade passes.
There is a reunion, of sorts, when Hasler walks into the reception of Menzies’ wedding to Suyin Condon.
“And there it is on my seat,” Hasler says, finally reunited with the right shoe. “And guess what? She’d made me throw the other one out two weeks earlier.”
More yarns, like the one about the door. The one he ripped clean off the hinges from Parramatta dressing-room while dressing down his players. Rumour has it he loosened the screws beforehand, preparing the prop for dramatic effect. If so, Hasler won’t let on.
“I remember when the door came off, Parra Stadium sent me an invoice,” Hasler grins. “They wrote to me with a quote and I said, ‘No, you better send me another two quotes’.
“They got the last laugh. They ripped down the whole stadium now and built Bankwest. I think one little door coming off the hinges won’t trouble them too much.”
Those who know Hasler best say, perhaps only half-jokingly, that he still has his first dollar.
In that same Eels match, Jarryd Hayne got away with what Hasler felt was a forward pass.
“I said the referees need to make a trip down and visit OPSM,” Hasler says. “Two weeks later they were the back-of-jersey sponsor. I’m still waiting for a thank you.”
And a commission.
There is nothing Hasler won’t do for his players, particularly if he feels they have been wronged.
Hasler will look them in the eye, demand the truth and, satisfied he has received it, will make it personal. Look no further than Brett Stewart’s sexual assault allegations, which proved unfounded. Or when James Graham told Hasler he didn’t bite Billy Slater’s ear in that grand final. Or when Hasler was front-row centre in the Supreme Court for Manase Fainu’s bail application hearing.
It’s why the troops will do anything for their general.
“That’s always been the modus operandi,” Hasler explains. “If the player invests in the club and the team, we’ll always invest in them to ensure they are given every opportunity.
“Even if they have stuffed up or done something wrong, it’s always about supporting that individual because they’re a part of what they do.”
If the player invests in the club and the team, we’ll always invest in them to ensure they are given every opportunity.
Which is why the former NSW and Australian playmaker is forever striving to give his men an edge. No other person has done more to advance sports science in rugby league. A pioneer in the use of GPS technologies, there have also been unconventional methods that border on Weird Science. Calf blood. Shots of beetroot juice. “Military” chewing gum containing the same amount of caffeine as six cups of coffee. All in the name of finding that elusive one per cent edge.
“You owe that to the people you’re working with,” Hasler said. “The essence of it is that it’s such a tough, hard game, played 24 times a year regular [season], they play every five or six or seven days.
“They are expected to go out and provide their best performance, so you’re always looking at ways you can improve their performance, shorten their recovery. It’s all about managing the individual as best you can.
“Is sports science going to win you games? Probably not, it’s the individual. It’s the great thing about the game, it’s about the individual acting under fatigue in the moment.
“That’s when great players rise, when great stories are written. That’s where legends are formed or downcast. The science is just about improving the performance of the player.”
Hasler is reeling off names. Dozens of them. Fred Jones, Max Krilich, Bob Fulton. “Crusher” Cleal, “Fatty” Vautin, “Beaver” Menzies, “Toovs”. It takes several minutes as Hasler does a generational roll call of Manly men that stretches all the way through to the current era. He apologises as he goes along, knowing he can’t possibly acknowledge everyone who has left an imprint on him and the club.
They, along with his staff and family, are the people he thinks about when the Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles experience tragedy or triumph.
“You’re accountable for that as a coach,” he says. “You’re part of it, you make sure you fill in those eras. That’s the great thing about rugby league. Whether you’re a great Pultizer winner or a tradesman – the game brings people together.
“It’s the many experiences and relationships that happen along the way that are so extraordinary. The great thing about people like Thomas [Keneally] is he wrote [my] book, but what is far, far more important is the friendship. Thomas is one of my dearest friends along with his family. Just a wonderful man, a wonderful Australian. I’m so proud and better for having known him.
“I’m very fortunate, 400 games is lovely, the game has been great to me.
“I’m always very protective of family but I have had incredible support from them.
“When you look around you can see that, it makes it all worthwhile.”
Adrian Proszenko is the Chief Rugby League Reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald.