Chasing Irvine: Alex Johnston’s Request for Try Scoring Immortality

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For science types, 212 represents the degrees Fahrenheit boiling point for water at sea level. Hip hop fans laud ‘212’ as the title of Azealia Banks’ visceral banger from 2011. It’s also the original area code for Manhattan, immortalised in ‘The Maid’ episode of Seinfeld.

For rugby league historians and trivia buffs, though, 212 means one thing: Ken Irvine’s Australian premiership record for most career tries.

Irvine racked up his tally – 60 clear of the next best at the time – in 236 first-grade games from 1959-73, despite the notable handicap of playing for battlers North Sydney for 12 seasons before finishing his career with three years (and two much-deserved premierships) at Manly.

No player has seriously threatened the Team of the Century winger’s hallowed mark. Billy Slater (190 tries in 319 games) sits second on the all-time tryscoring register, followed by incomparable back-rower Steve Menzies (180 tries in 349 games) and the recently retired Brett Morris (176 tries in 276 games).

But there’s a finisher surging towards the top 10 and on a trajectory towards Irvine.

Alex Johnston has 141 tries since debuting in 2014 – five short of Nathan Merritt’s South Sydney club record and one ‘meat pie’ away from breaking into the all-time top 20. At 27 years of age, the rangy flyer has time on his side.

Johnston scored 30 tries from 22 games in 2021 – the third-highest season tally of all time, after the Immortal Dave Brown’s ridiculous 38 in just 15 games for Easts in 1935 and Newtown winger Ray Preston’s 34 tries in 1954. No other player had crossed more than 27 times in the previous 66 seasons.

The NRL’s blowout-inducing rule changes may have had an impact on that watershed haul. Tom Trbojevic scored an obscene 28 tries in only 18 games (after coming into 2021 with a career strike-rate of 0.50 tries per game), while Josh Addo-Carr became the first player since 1950 to score six tries in one match – ironically against Johnston’s Rabbitohs.

But crediting the competition’s overall trend would be to undersell Johnston’s tryscoring consistency. He led the NRL with 23 tries in 22 games in 2020 and has two other 20-plus tallies in his eight-season career.

Johnston has crossed for 141 tries in 173 games at the outstanding strike-rate of 0.82 per game.

Of the players above him on the all-time tryscorers list, only pre-WWII Souths legends Harold Horder (1.12 per game) and Benny Wearing (0.84), pioneering forward freak Frank Burge (0.89) and Irvine (0.90) boast a better strike-rate.

Since Irvine retired, the only try centurion with a better strike-rate than Johnston’s is the mercurial Nathan Blacklock (121 tries at 0.85 per game).

At his current clip, Johnston would edge past Irvine in his 263rd NRL match – roughly another four injury-free seasons away.

The key to Johnston getting to the double-ton and overtaking Irvine is staying on the wing: he has scored 117 tries in 115 starts on the flank, but a comparatively modest 24 touchdowns in 61 games from fullback.

The one-Test Kangaroo and Papua New Guinea international’s only sub-0.50 tries per game seasons were 2018 (eight in 24) and 2019 (four in 15), when he predominantly wore the No.1. Since then, he’s bagged 58 tries in only 51 games.

A pair of Fijian phenoms would have had Irvine in their sights had they not been lured to rugby union as 25-year-olds. Semi Radradra scored an incredible 82 tries in 94 games for Parramatta (a strike-rate of 0.87) before joining Toulon at the end of 2017, while Melbourne try-poacher Suliasi Vunivalu crossed for 86 tries in 111 NRL appearances (0.77) before taking the bait from Queensland Reds at the end of 2020.

Countryman Maika Sivo is among the most potent tryscorers of the NRL era – dotting down 54 times in 68 games for the Eels (0.79 per game) – but the injured powerhouse did not debut until the age of 25 in 2019.

Sydney Roosters beanpole Daniel Tupou is next on the all-time tryscorers list behind Johnston among current players, scoring an impressive 121 tries in 207 games (0.58 per game). The 30-year-old is also unlikely to have enough seasons left to challenge Irvine.

The current player most capable of creating history along with ‘AJ’ is Addo-Carr. ‘The Foxx’ has 105 tries in 134 games (0.78 per game) and is only 26 – though his move to struggling Canterbury could stymie his strike-rate, at least in the short-term.

Johnston is a favourite among anytime tryscorer punters, getting over the line in 91 of his 173 NRL appearances (and 23 of his last 33). Addo-Carr has crossed in 68 of his 134 games.

Meanwhile, Johnston has scored two or more tries on 37 occasions, including nine hat-tricks (featuring two hauls of five). He has scored five times in 2022 as he chases a third straight Ken Irvine Medal.

Young guns worth keeping an eye on in coming years in terms of record-breakers – and immediately in anytime tryscorer betting – include Ryan Papenhuyzen (44 in 64 games), Cronulla duo Sione Katoa (37 in 54 games) and Ronaldo Mulitalo (33 in 46 games), Manly triumvirate Trbojevic (78 in 118 games), Reuben Garrick (46 in 76 games) and Jason Saab (30 in 41 games), Penrith’s Stephen Crichton (34 in 60 games) and rookie teammate Taylan May (eight in six games).

For now, though, rugby league stats nerds like this writer will chart Johnston’s progress in coming seasons with feverish interest as one of the code’s most seemingly insurmountable achievements by our greatest-ever winger comes under threat