Dragons honour giant of rugby league Reg Gasnier

• Dragons edge out Cowboys 27-24: photos

It is significant that Saturday’s memorial ceremony for Reg Gasnier at Kogarah Oval will have an almost religious formality because the Dragons and Immortal centre set rugby league records with a quiet grace which was very nearly priestly.

His country's youngest-ever captain at 23 years and 28 days in 1962, he played in 39 Tests, toured with the Kangaroos three times, scored 219 tries in 223 first-class games and was a Team of the Century player.

Despite there being no vision of St George in 1959, the year he began his brilliant career – and little of Gasnier himself – he is known to two generations of fans who never saw him play and my generation who did and will never forget it.

'We loved to see the back of him but we also knew it was going to be a try. He was unselfish, too. He made a bloody heap of tries for others as well.'

We recall him larger than life, shining like a Sunday morning, bursting downfield in heart-stopping swiftness, always a footballer but athletically one who carried a mystical beauty.

He was not only the most valuable backline player of his era, he was also the most dazzling, the most breathtaking, the most engaging and the most joy to watch.

Reg Gasnier ... "I was red-and-white crazy. It was always my ambition to play for St George".

Reg Gasnier ... "I was red-and-white crazy. It was always my ambition to play for St George".

Saturday's ceremony precedes the Dragons versus Cowboys match. Each fan attending will be handed a tribute booklet and the ceremony will involve the five living Immortals plus Gasnier’s captain coach, Norm Provan, handing the Gasnier family medallions for each of Reg’s six premierships.

Players from Gasnier’s junior club, Renown, together with those from St George who played 10 or more games with him, will form a guard of honour.

His co-centre in St George’s 1962 grand final and fellow Kangaroo tourist in 1959, John Riley, will be at Kogarah, the first opportunity to honour Gasnier on his old home ground since he died on May 11, just a day short of his 75thbirthday.

The original Immortals ... Clive Churchill, Bob Fulton, Johnny Raper and Reg Gasnier.

The original Immortals ... Clive Churchill, Bob Fulton, Johnny Raper and Reg Gasnier.

Reg Gasnier in action for St George.

Reg Gasnier in action for St George.

Gasnier and Riley were St George juniors who played for rival clubs, with Riley playing for Ramsgate United.

“I hated him then but I loved him in 1957 when we played in St George’s winning Presidents Cup team,” Riley said. “From the first day to the last day I played with him, I will never forget him going past them, stepping a bit wider each time.

“We loved to see the back of him but we also knew it was going to be a try. He was unselfish, too. He made a bloody heap of tries for others as well.”

Riley and Gasnier both missed the 1959 grand final, breaking down with injury the week before, yet both toured with the Kangaroos.

“He missed the first seven games with a hamstring injury but was as good over there as he was here,” Riley says.

“The fields were muddy but he just floated across the top of them. He also dodged most of the stiffies [stiff arm tackles].”

Gasnier’s wife Maureen and Riley’s wife Gwen were bridesmaids at each other’s weddings.

“They are as thick as thieves,” Riley says. “They played golf together as members of what we called the ‘rat pack’ at Woolaware Golf Club.”

Riley’s comments evoke memories of a one-club, one-woman era when Sydney’s footballers grew up in the district where they learnt their junior football, became engaged to the first woman they seriously dated and stayed married. They retired before their use-by date, mainly to pursue further careers to support their growing families.

It’s a wholesome image which complements Gasnier’s pristine on-field reputation.

Of the possibility of ever leaving St George, he once told me, "The residential qualification applied, but I was red-and-white crazy. It was always my ambition to play for St George."

Of his hero, St George five-eighth Johnny Hawke, he said. "I ran onto the field after one of his games to get the corner post. It was wet and the bloody thing unfurled in 10 seconds."

He gave most of his football jumpers away but not his first Test jersey, worn in 1959 at the SCG against New Zealand. "I paraded around my parents' home at Mortdale in that jumper and slept in it," he said.

Of his retirement, before he reached the age of 29, after hobbling from the field nine minutes from the end of a Kangaroo tour match against a French Hopefuls team on a chilly Avignon day in 1968, he said, "I could have played for St George in '68 but my priorities had changed. I wanted to spend time with my family and devote more time to my career."

When he suffered nerve damage to the left side of his face in November 1994, beginning 20 years of medical attention, he said of Maureen, “She has become the general manager of my operations.”

Riley says of the tumours, "It was a terrible illness he went though. I never once heard him say, ‘Why me?’."

It is difficult to reconcile the wasted, withered Gasnier in his final years with the athletic aura he displayed from an early age.

He played first-grade cricket for St George, once representing NSW against a Fiji XI alongside Keith Miller, Richie Benaud, Alan Davidson, Neil Harvey and Norm O’Neill.

He also played baseball for NSW and was a handy golfer.

Riley recalls, “He’d also run in all the athletic carnivals,” winning events from the sprints to the middle distance.

“On the ’59 tour, we went skiing in France, wearing these daggy old tracksuits. None of us had ever skied before. Reg kept falling arse over tit.

“We laughed and he told us all to piss off. In the end we all went to the bar and told him he was the world’s worst skier.

“It was the only thing he wasn’t good at.”

Each year, in perpetuity, a Dragons home game at Jubilee Oval Kogarah will be the Reg Gasnier match. A Reg Gasnier scholarship will be awarded annually, to a local male or female rugby league person, to assist with their continued personal and professional development for three years.

A plaque will be laid at the north-west corner of the playing field at Kogarah.

smh.com.au

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