In-depth: The record-breaking Ken Irvine was way ahead of his time

Drew Darbyshire

In honour of one of Australia’s greatest ever try scorers, Ken Irvine, we add another one to the in-depth series…

The depths of rugby league within Australia have seen a great deal of players whose careers and style of play have completely encapsulated the country as a whole and overall changed the entire complexion of how the game is played throughout the nation.

We can look to players such as Arthur Beetson, Clive Churchill, Mal Meninga and Wally Lewis with each of these players living long in the memory of many rugby league fans thanks to their pioneering style. There is however another name that we can add to this list and that is the ever-prolific Irvine.

Born out of Cremorne, Sydney, Irvine’s first taste of competitive sport did not actually come with rugby league but with the likes of baseball and sprinting (an aspect that was said to become pretty evident during his playing days). However, after choosing to attend a trial with the North Sydney Bears in 1957, the then 17-year-old made it abundantly clear that his future laid within the confides of rugby league as he went on to make his debut only a year later.

After proving to be an instant success during the 1958 season, he was selected for the New South Wales side the following year. An achievement made all the greater when you consider he had only one season of rugby league under his belt along with standing to his testament as someone who could achieve great things in the sport. The dangerous winger’s second season in the game proved just to be as a big of a hit as Irvine showcased his natural try scoring ability once more as he led the league with 19 tries. The performances not going unnoticed as he was later rewarded with a selection for Australia’s 1959-60 tour of Europe.

By 1961 his continually publicised speed became the centre piece of a special event that saw him attempt to break the World Sprint Record over 100 yards (91m). As he displayed the traits of which saw him take up sprinting in his time before playing rugby league, he equalled the record of 9.3 seconds. The achievement still stands today as a great argument to his claim as one of the fastest rugby league players to lace up a pair of boots.

Now yes, the addition of trophies was hard to come by during his time at Norths and would be an elusive aspect throughout the man’s career but his presence amongst the team alongside three touring Australia teams throughout the 60s was there to see as he cemented himself on a world stage with an epic try scoring feat.

During the 1963-64 Kangaroo Tour of Great Britain and France, Irvine equalled his achievement from 1962 in which he was able to score a try in each of the Ashes Tests against Great Britain. A record that has only been equalled by Sam Backo in 1988 and Mal Meninga in 1990 since. Another incredible testament to his undeniable eye for the try-line.

Despite missing out most of the 1969 NSWRFL season with a broken leg, his willingness to get himself on to scoresheet always translated onto his tally throughout each season as apart from that 1969 season, Irvine scored over 10 tries in each season he played. He possessed a level of scary consistency that was unseen of at the time.

A great 12-year career with the North Sydney Bears ended in 1970 after disagreements between the club and himself. Whilst his time at the club may have lacked the presence of consistent silverware, his total of 171 tries in 176 appearances for the club showed he was unquestionably prolific and just how much of naturally gifted scorer he was. A stat that all but solidified his position as the side’s key talisman.

Now, on the market, an opportunity presented itself in the form of a highly talented Manly Warringah Sea Eagles team where he signed for in 1971 following talks with the club’s secretary, Ken Arthurtson. A star-studded line up that already featured the likes of Bob Fulton, Fred Jones and Graham Eadie went on to win back to back Premiership titles in 1972 and 1973 as Irvine claimed his first taste of Premiership glory.

Even as he came towards the end of his career, there was no indication that he was slowing down as that name Irvine still regularly appeared on the scoresheet. A total of 41 tries in 60 appearances for the Northern Beaches team placed him as the NSWRFL’s all-time top scorer at the time, becoming the first man to score over 200 tries in NSWRFL history. Ever since his retirement in 1973, no one has ever matched Irvine’s try scoring feat of 212 in first-grade Australian rugby. The closest person being Melbourne’s Billy Slater who retired in 2018, 30 tries shy of the speedy winger.

During those days at North Sydney and Manly, the Australian legend’s speed was said to be a sight that was something to behold. When he first entered rugby league with North Sydney, not many were said to be faster then him at his age. An athletically built, try scoring machine who competed in the upper tiers of rugby league thanks in large to his sheer scoring volume and god given pace to get over the try line. The Hall of Fame inductee’s try scoring tally at club, representative and international level are all still spoken of today, with his 28 tries in 25 appearances for NSW being another record that still stands to this very day. Even at international level a total of 33 tries in 31 appearances looked to be something that would not be beaten anytime soon until a certain Darren Lockyer broke the record that had stood since the late 60s. Even despite this, Irvine still stands second on the Kangaroos list of top try scorers and across today’s current crop of players, only South Sydney’s Greg Inglis comes close to matching the feat with 31.

Those achievements and records can unquestionably put him right at the top of the list as one of Australia’s greatest wingers. In an earlier story centred around Martin Offiah I stated that, it takes more than just naturally gifted speed to score a great number of tries. It takes a great deal of instinct, timing and athleticism, all of which Irvine seemingly possessed with a scary ease. A 16-year career may have lacked the addition of silverware, but this should never be taken away from the era defining player that he was. A former North Sydney official, Tom Hicks is claimed to have once stated whilst scouting a young Irvine that, ‘If ever I saw a champion on the way, it’s this kid … He has everything’.

An extensive trophy case is not just something that makes a player a champion but also their impact and influence, both of which the high-flying winger brought to the game. The former North Sydney and Manly great is not only the greatest try scorer in first-grade Australian rugby league history but one of the country’s greatest talents and will forever be one of the true ‘Immortals’.

Milestones and achievements
Premierships: 1972-73
Australia Kangaroos tours: 1959-60, 1963-64, 1967-68
Australian Rugby League Team of the Century: 2008
New South Wales Team of the Century: 2008
Named in the NRL Team of the 1950s and 1960s
Holds record for most tries in a Premiership career – 212