Declaring a player one of the all-time greats when he or she was playing a team sport can at times be problematic.
Was the player great to the degree that if they had been on a poor team, they still would have accomplished the achievements which they did? Perhaps it was a matter of being in the right place at the right time. Playing on a powerful team provides opportunities that players of similar ability do not enjoy if caught on a side whose fortunes are on the ebb.
Certain individuals, however, remove debate by achieving phenomenal, unequaled records and at the same time enjoying the sort of success from a team perspective that removes all doubts regarding their status.
In the game of rugby league, one such individual amongst that group is one who, as of 2015, holds the record for tries that is far beyond what any other player can claim and has also seen the team be successful.
Given his 212 tries over the course of 11 seasons with Norths and three with Manly, you would expect Irvine to be well up the list for all-time scoring, but that expectation would remain unmet, since he did not produce many points from any other route. He had only one field goal in fourteen seasons. It should be mentioned that the point value of the various scoring methods have changed over time, so if Irvine, who played from 1959 – 1973, had done his playing after 1983, his point total would have jumped by 212 merely from the value of a try going from three to four points.
Ken Irvine was born in the Cremorne district of Sydney. He was a highly competent baseball player and also an accomplished sprinter, so his natural athletic talents were undisputed.
Ken Irvine was 17 years old when he showed up at a trial for the North Sydney Bears and impressed the first grade coach to the degree that Irvine was signed to a contract and began playing the next year. He was immediately successful, scoring tries frequently and made his way into the NSWRFL in 1959, where he topped the league in try scoring with 19. He would never surpass that total, but with 17 tries in another two seasons, and three seasons with 16 and none with fewer than 13, his average calculates out to 15.14 per season, so it is obvious that his consistency was there throughout.
Ken Irvine wasted no time in his 1959 round 1 debut against Parramatta eels. He scored four tries to serve notice to the league that this was not simply some rookie who needed schooling. He had nine more try-scoring games for the seniors that season, including another four try output against the Eels in round 10. The Norths were only average that year, finishing fifth on the 10-team ladder, despite having the third best points differential in the league, their +89 far and away better than the -42 of fourth place finishers Newton. Irvine’s play entitled him to a slot on the Australian side in the 1959 – 60 Kangaroo tour.
The Norths slipped further still in 1960, concluding the season in seventh position. Irvine scored 17 tries in 11 matches where he scored at all. Only Wests would experience one of his four try outbursts. He had established himself as one of the premier wingers in the league, with a combination of speed and elusiveness that gave the opposition nightmares. Larger and less maneuverable defenders often found themselves tackling the air recently vacated by Irvine when they attempted to stop him from finishing the play and scoring.
Irvine’s speed was verified in 1961 when an event to determine its true nature was concocted to put it to the clock. He tied the world 100 yard record of 9.3 seconds, which was absurdly fast, a hold-over, no doubt from his earlier athletic endeavours. That speed was put to go use in the NSWRFL during the season, with Ken Irvine contributing 17 tries and for the first time in his career, making a goal for two of his 53 points that year.
Irvine played a further eight seasons with Norths. By far, their best season was 1965, when they finished second on the ladder. Irvine himself was down as low as ever he was in the try scoring department, making only 13. He certainly was glad to make the finals at the expense of tries. Norths, however, for their effort drew a match against St. George in the semifinals, during that time when it would not have been inaccurate to call the NSWRFL St. George and nine other teams.
Ken Irvine, through some dispute with Norths head coach Roy Francis, left the team after 1970, having made 176 appearances during which he scored 171 tries.
Manly was quick to sign him for 1971 season. The Sea Eagles had an impressive year by any standard, winning 19, losing only three. Unfortunately, they drew Souths for the semifinals, only to find themselves at a six point deficit at the end. The following week, they experienced a similar fate against St. George, even more so in fact, as they lost by only three points. Thanks to Ken Irvine and his teammates, however, Manly had their first title as minor premiers in their 25 year history.
Ken Irvine’s persistence over the previous 12 seasons bore fruit in the form of a premiership in 1972. They disposed of Easts rather handily in the semifinals. Manly faced Easts again when the Roosters got past St. George in the preliminary final. The Grand Final featured no shortage of controversy. Manly scored two hotly disputed tries and Easts had two disallowed, but over forty years later, only the final 19 – 14 score matters.
Manly duplicated the feat in Irvine’s last season, 1973. Manly was again at the top of the ladder thanks to an unstoppable offense and a top-three defence. Expansion had added two extra teams in the recent past, so a qualifying final was needed in order for upstart Cronulla to gain the right to play Manly in the semifinals, which Manly won. Manly beat the Sharks 14 – 4, but two weeks later, the Sea Eagles took to the Sydney Cricket Ground to find the Sharks their opponent for the Grand Final. In a game that could have been described as a bar-room brawl where a rugby match broke out, Manly held on to prevail 10 – 7.
Many honours followed Ken Irvine’s career. He did not get to enjoy these, because he died in 1990, just 50 years old, after battling cancer. The Australian League Rugby Hall of Fame came calling in 2004. The Norths placed him on their Team of the Century in 2006. Experts placed him as a winger in the Australian Team of the 50s, but it is likely that Irvine himself would have be unimpressed, since his first season was the last year of the decade.
What may have impressed him was the description of journalist Mike Gibson, who described Ken Irvine as “Captain Marvel, Superman, Brick Bradford and Batman and Robin all rolled into one.”