Former Manly coach Des Hasler says there were no “red flags” raised with him about Keith Titmuss’s conditioning or the temperature on the day the rugby league rising star died following a pre-season training session.
The promising young forward lost consciousness at the team’s Narrabeen headquarters on Sydney’s northern beaches before he later died after suffering cardiac arrest.
A coronial inquest, which is examining his death, has heard several experts conclude that Mr Titmuss, 20, was suffering from heat stroke when he had a seizure after the club’s first session of the NRL pre-season on November 23, 2020.
The inquest, before Deputy State Coroner Derek Lee, is looking into the circumstances of the training session, with the court hearing that a year beforehand the club had been urged to take heat readings before each outdoor session or risk “litigation”.
Mr Titmuss took part in a 90-minute outdoor field session before moving indoors to the club’s “dojo” for a short, 10-minute cardio session, doing exercises including burpees and fireman’s carries.
Mr Hasler, now the Gold Coast Titans coach, on Friday told the court that he entered the dojo as the players were stretching and was present when Mr Titmuss suffered cramps and later a seizure.
The court was told that Mr Titmuss returned to pre-season training weighing 116.8kg, four kilos heavier than when he was weighed in September at the end of the previous season.
Mr Titmuss also scored the lowest of any of his teammates on a yoyo test, a running drill used to assess a player’s aerobic capacity.
When asked if there were any red flags concerning Mr Titmuss’s conditioning following the yoyo test, Mr Hasler said: “No, other than it was one of the lower ones and it’s an area we could improve.”
He also remarked that Mr Titmuss was in “great shape” despite putting on four kilos in the off-season.
Asked to assess how strenuous the training session was, Mr Hasler described it as a “six to seven” out of 10.
At the time, Mr Titmuss was considered a rising star and had been earmarked as a player of the future having been elevated to the club’s top-30 squad.
Mr Hasler on Friday told the court that it was common for players to put on two to four kilos over the off-season.
He was pressed by counsel assisting Adam Casselden SC on whether the training session was too “demanding” given Mr Titmuss’s score on the yoyo test.
“It would have been challenging… But there were planned stoppages so that there was the opportunity to recover and to rehydrate before we move to the next phase,” Mr Hasler said.
Mr Casselden questioned whether the session represented an “unnecessary risk” to Mr Titmuss given his level of conditioning at the time.
But Mr Hasler said there were breaks during the session and players were allowed to rest and recover.
He described it as a “longer, slower” session that was recorded in a lower metres-per-minute on the players’ GPS data.
The court has been told that young NRL players sometimes felt pressured to push themselves during training for fear of falling out of favour with their coaching staff.
However Mr Hasler said he attempted to foster an open relationship where players felt comfortable.
“If they are feeling ill or feeling like they’re not coping well, if they feel they are struggling or injured, (the club encourages) that they raise their hand and let us know,” Mr Hasler said.
The court was told that there were 10 staff, including Mr Hasler, his two assistant coaches, two physios and other high-performance staff monitoring the session for 15 players for any sign of distress.
The court was told that in 2019, the club’s then chief medical officer Luke Inman sent an email to Mr Hasler, Manly head of performance Don Singe and general manager of football John Bonasera.
In the email he implored the club to take a kestrel measurement – a handheld reading of heat and temperature – before each training session.
In the email, Dr Inman warned the club would “open yourself up to litigation” if a player suffered heat stroke or “worse dies”.
The email referenced a previous incident in 2018 when another player, Lloyd Perrett, collapsed due to heat stroke during a pre-season training.
The inquest was previously told that a maximum temperature of 24.9C was recorded at Terrey Hills on the day the incident.
Asked if he could remember receiving that email, Mr Hasler said “no”.
Mr Hasler said he had no memory of kestrel measurements being taken before outdoor training sessions.
Asked whether there were any concerns raised about the temperature, which ranged from 20C to 24C on the day, Mr Hasler said: “No.”
“Keith was a beautiful boy, he was much loved, very highly regarded and highly respected,” Mr Hasler said as Mr Titmuss’s family sat in the back of the court.
“I’m so, so sorry and I share your heartbreak, I really do.”
Experienced sports doctor Dr Nathan Gibbs, Manly’s chief medical officer at the time, told the court on Friday he advocated for players to be given a reduced training load in their first weeks back at pre-season training.
He called for players to undertake a 50 per cent load in the first week back, 75 per cent in the second week before returning to full training in week three – a measure which was backed by Mr Hasler.
Mr Bonasera the court that following Mr Titmuss’ death, the club had begun taking kestrel readings before all outdoor training sessions.
He said since the club learned Mr Titmuss had died due to heat stress, the club had added air conditioning to the dojo, which was still occasionally used by its players.
The club has since begun training out of their new $32m centre of excellence at Brookvale Oval, which includes air-conditioned indoor facilities.
He also said the club had undertaken extensive work in educating staff and players about the risk of heat stress.
Mr Bonasera at times became tearful and emotional during his evidence, saying there was also a greater emphasis on all forms of player welfare.
“There is no comparison, from 2010-11, there was probably a reference to ‘leave your troubles at the door, this is football’. This has changed over that time,” Mr Bonasera said.
“We’re about working with the whole person, we’re focussed on making good people.”
The inquest will resume on Tuesday and is due to conclude on Wednesday.