Manly Warringah Sea Eagles rugby league club has dismissed head coach and veteran player Des Hasler (pictured main; photo Matt Cleary) in a move widely seen as a reaction to his handling of a rainbow jersey controversy in July 2022.
In the meantime, many fans have responded angrily across social media, with some threatening to cancel membership or cover up their eagle tattoos in protest at the decision.
On the morning of Thursday 13 October the club board met to discuss Hasler’s future and the directors decided Hasler’s stewardship had become untenable.
Former Brisbane Broncos’ and South Sydney Rabbitohs’ coach Anthony Seibold was then enlisted as Hasler’s replacement as head coach to take the Sea Eagles into the 2023 football season.
Hasler still had 12 months left on his contract with the Sea Eagles – estimated to be worth around $1 million a year salary.
Speculation is rife that the club board will be obliged to pay him a severance, with reports suggesting anywhere between an agreed $450,000 capped termination fee to the full million dollars he would have earnt if his contract hadn’t been cut short. Lawyers are expected to haggle over the amount.
Hasler, a former professional rugby league footballer who played halfback, lock and hooker positions for 11 of his 15 years with the Sea Eagles – including the Premiership-winning 1987 and 1996 squads – was in his second term as coach when he received his marching orders, having returned in 2019.
During his first stint, from 2004 – 2011, he coached the Sea Eagles to a record-breaking victory over Melbourne Storm in the 2008 Grand Final where they walloped the Minor Premiership leaders 40 – 0. It remains the highest winning margin in a Grand Final in National Rugby League (NRL) history.
Hasler oversaw 303 Sea Eagles’ premiership matches and was poised to surpass the record of the late, great Bob Fulton, regarded as one of Australia’s finest players. Fulton, who won three premierships playing with the Sea Eagles in the 1970s then later coached them for 13 years until 1999, oversaw 307 Sea Eagles’ matches.
After Hasler was shown the door, media reporting then focused on the future of the talented Trbojevic brothers, Jake and Tom, both of whom have enjoyed outstanding careers at Manly and played for Australia at international level.
The Trbojevic brothers’ contracts reportedly stipulate they remain with the club under Hasler’s stewardship, and after the announcement of the sacking, pundits suggested they were ready to abandon the only club they’ve played for professionally in the NRL competition.
This was ignited the day before when Paul Sutton, the Trbojevics’ manager, told Channel Nine TV that Tom and Jake were “concerned about staying” with Sea Eagles if deputy coach Anthony Seibold succeeded Hasler – which indeed happened.
However, TripleM FM Radio scotched the rumours of the Trbojevics’ dissent and interviewed NRL journalist Brent Read, who insisted, “They’re not going anywhere, they’re the heart and soul of that footy club… they like Seibold from what I’m told.”
The Trbojevic brothers, one of whom is nicknamed ‘Tommy Turbo’ for his athletic prowess and skills at outmanoeuvring opponents, were born in Mona Vale and grew up on the Northern Beaches, the Sea Eagles’ heartland.
Sea Eagles’ Club statement
A public confirmation of Hasler’s dismissal was released on the Sea Eagles’ website at 7pm on the day he was removed from duties.
The statement said: “Manly Warringah Sea Eagles confirm that the Club’s board has unanimously resolved that Des Hasler will not be Head Coach of the Club for NRL season 2023. ‘After careful consideration, the board of the Manly Warringah Sea Eagles has today unanimously decided that, in the best interests of the Club, Des Hasler will not be Head Coach of the Club for NRL season 2023,’ Manly Warringah Sea Eagles Chairman Mr Scott Penn said.”
Mr Penn continued: “The board and the Club would like to acknowledge Des and his long history with the Club as a player and as a coach, enjoying two premierships with the Club as a player and taking the Club to two more premierships as a coach.
“We are grateful and appreciative to Des for his dedication to the Club, the team, all of its supporters and the sponsors over a long period of time. Des will always remain an icon of the Club and an integral part of the Club’s history.
“The Club is in discussions with Des and his management to try to reach an amicable resolution which is acceptable to the parties.”
Over the Rainbow?
Many commentators in the League world claim Hasler is being made a “scapegoat” for the club’s controversial decision to promote a LGBTQI-friendly round (LGBTQI is a collective term for people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex) involving players wearing rainbow-striped jerseys.
Although there are rounds throughout the annual rugby season calendar promoting Indigenous and women’s involvement in the sport, there is no LGBTQI-themed round.
In the 19th round of the 2022 season, Manly Sea Eagles became the first NRL club to wear a jersey celebrating gay/lesbian/trans pride in the 134-year history of Australian rugby league competition.
Initially touted “to celebrate diversity and inclusivity”, on Monday 25 July the club announced that their players would be competing in the forthcoming Thursday night’s match against Sydney City Roosters wearing the special rainbow-decorated jersey to support LGBTQI pride.
The traditional maroon jersey with a quartet of white strips paired above and below the primary sponsor’s logo saw the white replaced with rainbow-coloured strips.
The following day, Manly Observer reported that seven dissenting players rejected the single-use rainbow jersey and claimed they were not consulted prior to the club’s surprise announcement, nor given an opportunity to debate its merits.
The seven, Josh Aloiai, Tolutau Koula, Haumole Olakau’atu, Jason Saab, Josh Schuster, Toafofoa Sipley and Christian Tuipulotu – all Pacific Islanders – hold religious beliefs that either condemn or don’t condone homosexuality.
Although they hoped to play the match in their regular uniforms, the NRL administration doesn’t permit individual players to wear jerseys different to their teammates – so the seven boycotted the LGBTQI pride game instead.
The Sea Eagles went on to lose 20 – 10 to the Roosters, with several unspecified players from Sea Eagles’ feeder club, Blacktown Workers, also refusing to substitute for the seven players who boycotted the game.
After the debacle, in which Hasler tried to smooth over the club’s implosion with an at-times bizarre, apology-strewn press conference that Manly Observer’s Matt Cleary described as ‘nutty’, ‘heart-felt’, ‘Oprah Winfrey’ and, ultimately, ‘compelling’, the club went into free-fall and lost five subsequent matches. They finished the 2022 NRL season 11th on the 15-team ladder, a humiliating end to their at-times dynamic performances.
Hasler continues to assert he had no prior knowledge of the rainbow jerseys, despite leaked emails in the media the day before his sacking revealing the club planned them months in advance.
However, Hasler was directly in the firing line of its many opponents.
In a press conference given just after the 26 July announcement that seven players’ were boycotting the rainbow-themed match, Hasler insisted, “there was little consultation or collaboration with key stakeholders, both inside and outside the club.”
Hasler’s second sacking
Prior to returning to the Sea Eagles at the start of 2019, Hasler also coached Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs, from where he was also controversially sacked in September 2017 after six seasons, from 2012 – 2017.
This was allegedly connected to salary cap violations (players’ wages above NRL limits); something that also saw Melbourne Storm face record fines totalling $1,689,000 when they were stripped of their 2007 and 2009 Grand Final victories and their 2006, 2007 and 2008 Minor Premiership wins after the club was found guilty of multiple breaches.
Bulldogs Chairman Ray Dib confirmed Hasler’s departure at the time: “Today, I informed Des Hasler and his management of our decision to pursue a new Head Coach for our Club, effective immediately.
“The heads of agreement reached with Des Hasler for an extension of his contract were non-binding and a decision has been made not to renew his contract for next year.”
Yet under Hasler’s stewardship, the Bulldogs excelled. In 2012, they won the Minor Premiership, their first since 1994, although they subsequently lost 14 – 4 to Melbourne Storm in the Grand Final. In 2014 they came 7th on the ladder, but in the finals’ rounds defeated all rivals to make it to the Grand Final again, ultimately losing 30 – 6 to South Sydney Rabbitohs.
The real reason for Hasler’s sacking may never be known. Sydney Morning Herald’s chief sports writer Andrew Webster insists it’s centred on Sea Eagles’ owner and chairman Scott Penn’s power-struggle with the dominant Hasler.
In an opinion-piece published 13 October, Webster said, “The decision was never about football but a clash of egos,” adding, “it’s hardly surprising when Penn spends most of his time living in New York, devising ways to hold an NRL match in the US where he can hang with Hugh Jackman.”