Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Kenneth John (Ken) Irvine (1940–1990)

by Andrew Moore

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Kenneth John (Ken) Irvine (1940-1990), Rugby League footballer, was born on 5 March 1940 at Cremorne, Sydney, son of Sydney-born parents John Bernard Irvine, butcher, and his wife Doris May, née McCabe. Ken grew up at Cammeray, was educated at Marist Brothers’ Boys’ School, Mosman, and worked briefly as a beer plumber. Initially attracted to baseball, he was talent-spotted at a local Rugby League schools’ carnival by a North Sydney official. He played his maiden first-grade game for the club in 1958. The following season `Mongo’, nicknamed apparently because of his slightly Asiatic appearance, scored twenty-three tries. He was a member of the 1959 Kangaroo tour to England and France, quickly overcoming the negative connotation attached to the sobriquet `Better Brakes’ that he had attracted (implying a proclivity to slow down before tackles).

Of nuggety build (5 ft 8 ins or 173 cm; 11 st. 8 lb. or 73.5 kg) Irvine was blessed with scorching speed, flawless positional sense and safe hands. Together with Brian Bevan, the expatriate Australian who played for Warrington in the British competition, Irvine was the code’s most outstanding winger after World War II, of comparable status to Harold Horder in an earlier era. In fifteen years in the game, twelve with North Sydney, Irvine scored some 300 tries in about 340 games, including 33 in 31 Test matches. He retired from football after winning the premiership with the Manly-Warringah club in 1972 and 1973. At Dubbo in 1963 he had run 100 yards (91 m) in 9.3 seconds, setting a world professional sprint record. A celebrated attempt to outrun a racehorse was predictably unsuccessful—though popular memory of the contest against Gili over 60 yards (55 m) at Kembla Grange racecourse in August 1963 often suggests otherwise. He also enjoyed all forms of watersports.

Irvine had married Mavis Marguirite (Valerie) Simmonds, a typist, on 25 November 1961 at St Mary’s Catholic Church, North Sydney. Outside professional sprinting and football, he worked as a sales representative for sporting goods companies and as a sports journalist. His rugged good looks led to some modelling and made him a `natural’ for the game’s increasing commercialism. Despite his contractual battles with the club, North Sydney fans likened him, as the journalist Mike Gibson quipped, to `Captain Marvel, Superman, Brick Bradford and Batman and Robin all rolled into one’. An unassuming, likeable and knockabout Australian, Irvine was an enthusiastic punter and part-time larrikin.

In 1982 Irvine moved to the Gold Coast, where he worked as a sales representative with a poker-machine manufacturer and as a journalist. Part of a robust community of retired Sydney footballers, he played touch football with a local hotel team, briefly acted as sprint trainer for a Gold Coast league team and led Kangaroo supporters’ tours to England. In 1983 he was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukaemia. Survived by his wife and their daughter and son, he died on 22 December 1990 at Brisbane and was cremated. The scoreboard at North Sydney Oval, named in his honour in 1991, is a fitting testimonial to his try-scoring prowess.

Select Bibliography

  • M. Andrews, ABC of Rugby League (1992)
  • I. Heads, True Blue (1992)
  • A. Moore, The Mighty Bears! (1996)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Andrew Moore, 'Irvine, Kenneth John (Ken) (1940–1990)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 25 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


5 March, 1940
Cremorne, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


22 December, 1990 (aged 50)
Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

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