Reg Gasnier, who has died a day short of this 75th birthday after a long illness, was quite simply one of the greatest players the game of rugby league has ever seen. “Puff the Magic Dragon”, so called after the Peter, Paul and Mary song in recognition of his only professional club, the St George Dragons in Sydney’s southern suburbs, was just about everybody’s idea of the perfect centre. He was strong and elusive, with silky ball skills. What his contemporaries always referred to, however, was his devastating turn of pace. Although his career lasted a mere eight years, he left an indelible mark on the code.
Gasnier was one of the four inaugural inductees into The Immortals, seen in Australia as the four greatest players ever. The others were Clive Churchill, Bobby Fulton and his team-mate with St George, New South Wales and Australia, Johnny Raper. Others were added later, but it is a measure of his status that no one would have disputed his right to be one of the originals.
Few players have made an impact comparable with Gasnier’s debut season in 1959. He had been playing since the age of 15 with the local club, Renown United, often against full-grown men. He not only established himself in the all-conquering St George side, but scored a hat-trick for NSW on his debut and another against New Zealand in his first Test series.
He missed the Grand Final victory that season through injury, but played in the next six as the Dragons’ domination of the Australian domestic scene continued. In total he scored 127 tries in 129 games for the club, plus 13 in 16 for his state and 26 in 36 in Tests. He was also regarded as an equally good provider of tries for the wingers outside him.
For all that, it is arguable that he will be remembered at least as vividly in Britain, so compelling was his form on Kangaroo tours. In 1959-60 he scored three tries in the first Test against Great Britain at Swinton, which Australia won 22-14. A contemporary account described the key try like this: “[Eric] Ashton and [Billy] Boston were dumbfounded as sheer pace and marvellous acceleration took the young centre past them to touch down wide out.”
That was as good an example as any of the way that even the very best found it impossible to suppress Gasnier. Great Britain still managed to win that Ashes series – the last time, to date, that they have done so.
In 1962 Gasnier was captain of his country for the first time when the Lions paid their return visit, but it was generally agreed that the extra responsibility had come a little too early to a player who was still only 22 when he was appointed. The 1963 tour to Europe saw him at his best – he scored a hat-trick in the first Test at Wembley and another two in the 50-point massacre at Swinton.
The 1967-68 tour was a less happy experience. Gasnier, this time the Kangaroos’ captain-coach, broke a bone in his leg in the first Test defeat by Great Britain at Headingley. Two months later he attempted a comeback on the French leg of the tour but then broke down and announced his retirement after the game. It was a sad and sudden end to a glittering career.
Ever since his retirement, Gasnier has been the standard by which lesser players have been measured. Frank Facer, the man who signed him for St George, had no doubts where he stood in the history of the game: “I don’t think those who have seen him play will watch another genius like him for years to come… if ever.”
Gasnier worked extensively as a commentator for ABC, but suffered a brain tumour in 1995.
Reginald William Gasnier, rugby league footballer: born Sydney 12 May 1939; married Maureen (one daughter, one son); died Sydney 11 May 2014.