Although he was born and played his early rugby in Huddersfield, with the St Joseph's club, he was pinched from under the noses of the local professional side by Oldham and taken over the Pennines at the age of 16. His impact there was so immediate that he was a regular in the first team pack by the end of that 1964-65 season. Not the tallest of forwards, his great asset was the way that he could break through defences with the explosive power of his running.
Selection for Great Britain Under-24s soon followed, and for his native Yorkshire. By 1967, he was also a fixture in the Great Britain side, playing twice against France and then in all three Tests in the series that was lost to Australia in the deciding match at Swinton.
Irving was also a member of the 1970 Lions touring party to Australia - the last to return home with the Ashes - although he played only in the first Test at Brisbane. He was back in the starting line-up for the New Zealand leg of the tour.
Indeed, it was remarkable that he figured in international deliberations at all, because he was a member of one of Oldham's poorest sides; the preceding 1969-70 season had been the worst in their history, as they finished a lowly 29th in the Rugby League's single division. They would have suffered the ignominy of finishing 30th and last if Irving had not scored the try that beat Batley in the final match of the season.
On a more exalted stage, Irving was a member of Great Britain's World Cup-winning squad in France in 1972. By the time he left Oldham in 1973, Irving had won 11 Great Britain caps and his record in a lack-lustre club side also shows what an effective forward he had become. In 296 appearances, he had scored 80 tries for the Roughyeds, without which they would have been in even more dire straits.
On his departure, Irving had the misfortune to be a member of one of the less successful Wigan teams of the post-war period, although he was in the side that beat Salford to win the Lancashire Cup during his first season at Central Park. In four seasons, he played 154 games - this was long before anyone worried about the workload on players - and showed that he had not lost his eye for the try-scoring chance by crossing the line 40 times before he moved on in 1977.
The rest of Irving's career saw him wandering from club to club, starting with Salford, followed by Barrow, then in one of their ambitious phases of importing players from Lancashire and Yorkshire in a bid to recapture their glory days. He played and, for six months, coached at Blackpool Borough, the town where he had a hotel, until he was sacked in the middle of a particularly bad run of defeats.
His last club was Swinton and he retained his knack of try-scoring to the extent that his last months as a player in 1983 still brought him seven tries in 18 appearances. It was a tally that younger forwards would have envied.
At the time of his death, Irving was planning to return to Australia with the Rugby League Lions' Association to watch Great Britain this autumn. By a remarkable coincidence, the Test side is now coached by a man whose career followed Irving's almost exactly. Andy Goodway, a Yorkshireman who played for Oldham and Wigan, also made his name as a devastating ball-runner from the second-row. That helps to illustrate the way that Irving's playing style set a pattern for the future.
Robert Irving, rugby league player: born Huddersfield, Yorkshire 15 December 1948; died Blackpool, Lancashire 18 April 1999.