DAVE Brown has seen plenty of footballers over the years but nobody who comes close to the late, great Reg Gasnier.
Brown was a promising centre from Newcastle when he headed to the big smoke in 1960 to try his luck with the mighty St George Dragons, who had already won back-to-back grand finals.
After a handful of games in reserve grade, the 20-year-old centre was surprised to win a promotion when the Dragons experienced a spate of early-season injuries.
He soon established himself as a regular in one of the greatest backlines of all time, playing in 51 games, scoring 12 tries, helping win three successive premierships and representing NSW before returning to his home town after the 1962 campaign.
Two years later, Brown led Newcastle to one of their most famous victories in the now-defunct State Cup competition, helping keep Gasnier quiet in the 5-3 semi-final boilover against Saints at No.1 Sportsground.
Having played with and against Gasnier and watched several generations of players since, few are better qualified to offer an opinion of the rugby league ‘‘Immortal’’, who passed away on Monday.
‘‘They called him Puff the Magic Dragon and that’s what he was,’’ Brown said.
‘‘He was just a freak.
‘‘I don’t think anyone comes near him.
‘‘And how he lasted so long I’ll never know, because every team were after him every week.
‘‘But he just used to do the same thing, week after week. They couldn’t stop him scoring tries.’’
Asked if he could compare any latter-day players to Gasnier, Brown was unequivocal.
‘‘No,’’ he said.
‘‘They’re all fast these days and they’re all super fit, but this bloke, he was a one-off.
‘‘He scored tries like you wouldn’t believe and he could tackle, don’t you worry about that.
‘‘There weren’t many players that come close to him. As a matter of fact I’ve never seen one since.’’
Fifty years on, Brown admits he still finds it hard to believe how lucky he was to live out his wildest dreams.
When he debuted for the Dragons, the other members of three-quarter line – Gasnier, and Test wingers Johnny King and Eddie Lumsden – were all internationals.
Even the man Brown replaced, Johnny Riley, had just returned from the 1959 Kangaroo tour.
‘‘Gasnier was left centre to John King, and I was right centre to Eddie Lumsden,’’ Brown recalled.
‘‘I was very fortunate. The other guys were pretty good and when you get to play with guys like that, they make you look good.’’
The two edge pairings would have a bet at the start of every season about who would score the most tries.
‘‘Eddie and I had a pretty good year one year and scored 30 tries between us,’’ Brown said.
‘‘Gasnier scored that many on his own.’’
Having trained and played alongside Gasnier, Brown had inside knowledge on his side when Newcastle hosted the five-time premiers and wrote a chapter in Novocastrian folklore.
‘‘I was defending alongside a bloke called Bobby Moses, and we decided to come at him from both sides," Brown said.
‘‘We were able to stop him a bit that way, but our forwards deserved the credit.
‘‘That was a fabulous team we had.’’
Brown acknowledged it was ‘‘a different game’’ these days, when the average halfback is bigger than the centres of St George’s halcyon era.
‘‘I was about 11 stone,’’ he said.
‘‘That’s one of the reasons I came back to Newcastle [as captain-coach of Central], because I wasn’t the biggest bloke and I’d broken shoulders and things like that.
‘‘Gasnier, I think he used to play at about 12 stone three or four.
‘‘He wasn’t massive but he was a magnificently built man. Just lithe and super fit.’’
A founding director of the Newcastle Knights, Brown paid Gasnier the ultimate tribute when he declared: ‘‘Gasnier was as good a bloke as he was a player.
‘‘Just an absolute gentleman.’’