Pressure Points: If anyone can overcome the Gold Coast curse, Des Hasler is that man
The unstoppable force is about to meet the immovable object: Des Hasler, one of the great coaches of the modern age, takes on the Gold Coast, where sports teams go to die.
Now 62, Hasler is entering what might well be his last job in footy, and characteristically, does so by taking on one of the biggest challenges of his career.
Though he is approaching retirement age, Dessie has never been the old school sort, always moving with the times and integrating new ideas into his style.
He was, remember, the great tactical winner of the 2021 season under the Six Again rule, proving fastest to adapt to the new, faster game – and that was just the most recent example of the Mad Scientist living up to his reputation.
He’s also a bit of a strange cat, liable to give an elucidating answer one second – if you can hear it – and then give you the Tony Soprano head shake the next. The NRL is richer for having him in it.
Hasler will need to bring all of his ideas and experience to the Gold Coast if he to get a tune out of the league’s most underperforming franchise.
Underperforming is the correct word, too: while there have often been worse teams, they have poorer rosters than the Titans, who have regularly been worse than the sum of their parts for years.
Write out their best 1-17 and it’s pretty good. Certainly good enough to finish higher than 14th, where they ended 2023.
With Keenan Palasia on board and Beau Fermor back from an ACL, they now have one of the best packs going round, with David Fifita, Moeaki Fotuaika, Isaac Liu and Erin Clark as well as a solid hooker rotation in Sam Verrills and Chris Randall.
Des has historically loved a big bopper, and he’ll have plenty of them. He’s long loved Kieran Foran, too, and will get another chance to work with him.
It should, again, result in a lot of points – not that scoring has ever really been the problem for the Titans.
Last year, they were the 12th best in attack, but on the underlying numbers – the stuff that contribute to tries like line breaks, run metres and tackles inside 20m – they were generally better than their end output.
In defence, they were 13th and deserved to be so – especially when factoring in that the Titans made the third fewest tackles in the league, so every other defensive metric is pro-rated against how little they generally had to do.
The Raiders, for example, conceded about as many line breaks but faced on average more than two sets more per match.
If you felt like the Titans were waiting to collapse in defence, you were right – and only their decent ball control stopped it being more.
This makes the challenge twofold for Hasler. He has to drastically improve the defensive systems that have so consistently undermined the Titans for years, but also to improve the attitude that has seen the team fail to capitalise on good positions that they have made for themselves.
Of their 15 defeats in 2023, 11 were while scoring at least 18 points themselves and five were while scoring 26 or more.
They won games 38-34, 26-24 and 34-30, too, so it really shouldn’t take an enormous amount of defensive improvement to see a massive impact on the ladder.
The defensive systems and the mentality are really two sides of the same coin. The cliché that defending is all about attitude are pretty much correct, and nowhere is that more evident on the goalline, where the Titans crack so easily. That’s repeat bout efforts under pressure as much as it is organisation.
Hasler can be intense and will demand high standards, so you can expect this element of the game to pick up massively.
The reputation that the Gold Coast has earned as a bit of a holiday camp for footballers will end after just one of his pre-seasons: the beach will be for running.
Organisationally, however, he has big calls to make.
The fullback is often the player tasked with counting the numbers and moving players around, and Des will have to decide quickly between AJ Brimson, Jayden Campbell and Keano Kini for who he thinks is best at that.
It’s an underrated part of the role, but ask a teammate of James Tedesco or Clint Gutherson what their best aspects are, and likely that’s what they’ll say. Every player knows.
All three options have shown just what they can do with the footy, but without it, the jury is still out. It’ll take a Mad Scientist to get all three into the same team, too.
Organisation is one thing, execution is another. The outside backs have been shredded for two years straight under Justin Holbrook, with Brian Kelly and Philip Sami often looking like one-way players.
Hasler won’t tolerate that, but is a little limited in what he can do given salary cap and market opportunities. His first option will be to coach his players to be better in that area, but one wonders how possible that is with the likes of Kelly and Jojo Fifita.
On top of that, Hasler has to find another half to play alongside Foran, and the two frontrunners, Campbell and Tanah Boyd, are both highly suspect defensively.
Boyd lead halfbacks last year for line breaks caused and Campbell is the smallest body in the NRL and has rarely defended in the front line. He’s too good not to play, but would also be the most obvious of targets for opponents.
Des will see all these things as plus points. He has three guys who could play fullback, two five eighths and two halfbacks – including youngster Tom Weaver – as well as plenty of size and depth in the forwards.
This is a good roster, and it now has a good coach. If the Gold Coast curse is to end, 2024 might be the year.