It’s NRL finals time and, as has been the case for the past 11 years, a Des Hasler-coached side is in hot contention for premiership honours.
This year, despite the undeniable claims of the Roosters, Broncos, Cowboys and Storm, only a fool would say Hasler’s in-form Canterbury Bulldogs won’t be there on grand final day.
What’s Dessie’s secret? No point in asking him. Try it on when he is dragged kicking and screaming out of his coaching bunker to a post-match press conference, and the Columbo of coaches will only shrug, shuffle uncomfortably in his seat, take refuge behind his surfie blond fringe and mumble that he has no clue what you’re talking about.
If you want to talk about success, he suggests, you’d be better off chatting to rival coaches Craig Bellamy, Trent Robinson or Wayne Bennett.
Yet under scrutiny, his self-effacing facade crashes and burns.
Not for nothing is Hasler, 54, winner of the Dally M and International Rugby League Federation Coach of the Year, ranked as arguably the best coach the code has ever seen.
His sides (Manly from 2004-2011 and the Bulldogs since 2012) have qualified for every finals series since 2005. He has contested four grand finals and won two, with Manly in 2008 (a 40-0 shutout of Melbourne) and 2011.
Hasler is renowned for positioning the Bulldogs as underdogs in the lead-up to any clash.
By talking down his team’s chances, he cannily seeks to expel any vestiges of complacency in his own team and create a one-for-all and all-for-one siege mentality in his men.
Hasler calls it ‘flying under the radar’. Even when every sign points to a Bulldogs win, Hasler can concoct myriad reasons why his opponents are entitled to favouritism.
Consequently, there is no such thing as an easy game against a Des Hasler team.
A match against the Bulldogs is, fittingly, a dog fight. Trench warfare, with no prisoners taken.
Des’s Dogs don’t panic and come up with the correct options when it matters.
They are captained by the charismatic and furiously combative English front-rower James Graham, who mixes brutality with sublime ball skills.
Also in the ranks are 115-kilo-plus human steamrollers Sam Kasiano, David Klemmer, Greg Eastwood and Frank Pritchard, and workaholics Josh Jackson and Aiden Tolman, who lay a platform for the fleet-footed brilliance of backs Josh Reynolds, Moses Mbye, Tim Lafai, Curtis Rona and the Morris twins, Brett and Josh.
It’s often said that Hasler’s players would die for him, and one reason for that, apart from his ability to make them winners, is that a Hasler team is a happy team.
Within the structure he has created, the coach encourages individuality and self-expression on the paddock – Graham, Klemmer, Kasiano and Reynolds are all capable of impetuosity that can win a game (and occasionally lose it).
And, off the paddock, he takes a hand in his players’ welfare.
That’s why footballers queue at the Bulldogs’ door to become part of Dessie World.
Not that Hasler, a father of two, is without his idiosyncrasies.
As a player, he was a tough, super-fit halfback, lock and hooker for Penrith, Manly and Wests, who notched 309 games over 16 seasons, 12 Tests and World Cup matches for Australia.
But, perhaps unusually for a footballer, this did not stop him excelling as a school teacher and reading widely and deeply.
On tour in England and France while his teammates were holed up in their hotel playing 500, he’d be cruising the galleries and historic sites.
It’s reported that Hasler’s hero is Eric Liddell, the Scottish athlete and missionary immortalised in Chariots of Fire.
Hasler was himself a hero to Man Booker Prize-winning author and Manly tragic Tom Keneally, who in 1993 penned his biography, The Utility Player.
Wrote Keneally: “Gentleness? In a man like Des Hasler? Forty tackle a game Des! Well that’s the contradiction inherent in someone like Des. That’s why they used to [nickname] him ‘Sorry’… because he’d tackle someone like Greg Dowling, the ferocious Queensland prop, and say, ‘Sorry, are you alright, Greg?'”
Elsewhere, the author of Schindler’s Ark called Hasler “an Australian version of an Arthurian knight. His heart was strong because his soul was rigorously aligned”.
Those who have played and worked for him cite the rigour that Keneally detected.
Hasler’s steel-trap attention to detail and a work ethic often finds him toiling through the night and being found asleep at his desk next morning.
The mad professor
He is au fait with every innovation.
When he visited Manchester United’s space-age training headquarters they had nothing to teach him.
He’s known as ‘the mad professor’ for his unconventionality, eccentricity and use of cutting-edge training and psychology.
Yet, for all of Hasler’s embrace of science, he is deeply superstitious. He still sports his 1970s-style haircut and wears a 25-year old much-patched pair of lucky shoes to matches.
As well as being arguably rugby league’s top coach, Des Hasler gives the best quotes in a game whose coaches and players are schooled to keep media and fans at bay.
What other football coach invokes Mahatma Gandhi? Explaining his coaching philosophy at the beginning of the current season, he quoted the Indian activist:
“Keep your thoughts positive because your thoughts become your words, keep your words positive because your words become your behaviour, keep your behaviour positive because your behaviour becomes your habits, keep your habits positive because your habits become your values, and keep your values positive because your values become your destiny.”
Not surprisingly, the media hangs on his every word.
When the NRL decreed that coaches were not to publicly criticise referees, Hasler took to calling whistleblowers “Voldemorts… he whose name you cannot mention.”
On Monday, Hasler was fined $20,000 for comments made about the referees in Saturday night’s 20-18 win over Newcastle, particularly over their policing of the 10-metre rule.
And only he can take the mickey out of the footy press.
When one scribe asked the notoriously private coach if it was his birthday, Hasler dead-panned: “No comment.”
He delights in offering nonsensical non-sequiturs with the gravity of Moses delivering the Sermon on the Mount.
“If you take the ‘um’ off ‘momentum’, what have you got?,” he once pronounced, before coming up with the answer: “Moment.”
The assembled reporters nodded in agreement and checked to make sure their tape recorders were running.
The dispenser of the sage advice was up and off to training before the hacks realised they’d been had.
The Mad Professor had flown under the radar … again.