St George were aware of the rugby league prodigy in their midst even before their dream run of premiership success at the top level began in 1956. Young Reg Gasnier had arrived on the scene at junior club Renown United as a 15-year-old in 1955 and his natural ability shone through as the teams he played for captured premierships at D grade and C grade level. By 1957 he was called up to Saints’ President’s Cup team and the following year, before he’d celebrated his 19th birthday, he knocked back an opportunity to play grade, believing he was not yet ready for such a leap. Later the same year he was approached again and this time he agreed, playing a handful of games in third grade before turning out in the reserve grade grand final. From there his progression was little short of meteoric.
The gifted youngster, who could have reached the top of a number of different sports, started the 1959 season in reserve grade but finished the year as a Kangaroo tourist. After only a handful of first grade games he was fast-tracked into the New South Wales team and then into the Australian Test side against the touring New Zealand team. In his second appearance in the green and gold, Gasnier scored a hat-trick of tries, a feat he was to repeat in his first Test against Great Britain a few months later.
His arrival with Keith Barnes’ Kangaroos of 1959-60 was highly anticipated by the English press, who had heard glowing reports of his performances for St George as they waltzed undefeated to their 1959 premiership title and also for Australia against the Kiwis. Gasnier crossed for three tries in his first game on English soil against club side Widnes, his first after a 50-metre dash in which he displayed bewildering acceleration to squeeze through a minute opening before a change of pace and body swerve carried him to the line.
Gasnier dazzled with a hat-trick in his first Ashes Test at Swinton’s Station Road but it was a try he laid on for winger Brian Carlson in that same match that was described by former Australian forward Arthur Clues as the best try he had ever seen.
He continued to dazzle for St George as the Dragons’ winning run gathered pace. In his second season in the top grade he scorched his way to 25 tries from 17 appearances and his ability to score tries continued at an astonishing rate. By 1964 he had crossed for his 100th try in the top grade from just 86 appearances – the second fastest century ever recorded.
His statistics were a remarkable testament to his achievements – 127 tries from 125 premiership games for the Dragons and six grand final victories. At representative level he scored 28 tries from 39 Tests and toured three times with the Kangaroos. But the numbers go only part way towards capturing the essence of the player known as ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’.
Frank Facer, former St George secretary said of him: “I don’t think those who have seen him play will watch another genius like him for years to come … if ever.”
Former NSWRL president Bill Buckley said: “On his day he is the greatest rugby league player I have seen. He is more than entitled to be placed on the same pedestal as Dally Messenger, Harold Horder, Frank Burge and Dave Brown.”
Gasnier’s time in rugby league was relatively short. He was only 28 when injury forced him into retirement and his final game, played before a crowd numbering little more than 1,100 at a windswept ground in southern France on the 1967-68 Kangaroo tour, was much lamented.
Gasnier maintained close ties with rugby league after his retirement as a commentator for the ABC (radio and television) and was much honoured. In 1981 he was acclaimed as one of four post-war Immortals by Rugby League Week magazine and in 2008 he was named in the Australian Rugby League Team of the Century. He was also inducted into the Australian Sports Hall of Fame (1985) and the Australian Rugby League Hall of Fame (2002).
Gasnier’s health declined after suffering a brain tumour in 1995 and he passed away at a nursing home at Miranda in Sydney’s south on Sunday, one day before his 75th birthday.