Ken Kearney

Rugby league captain-coach
Click to follow

Kenneth Howard Kearney, rugby league player and coach: born Penrith, New South Wales 3 May 1924; married (two sons, one daughter); died Gold Coast, Queensland 18 August 2006.

Ken Kearney was the guiding force behind the most successful club side in the history of rugby league. Even more so than the Wigan team of the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Australian club St George dominated the game in their country, winning 11 domestic titles in a row from 1956 to 1966.

The inspiration that made such dominance possible came from England - via Kearney. Originally a rugby union hooker with the Parramatta club in Sydney, he played seven Tests for the Wallabies before being demobbed from the Royal Australian Air Force and turning professional with Leeds in 1948.

He hardly looked the part. Described as a "slow, tubby figure in long, baggy shorts", Kearney - quickly nicknamed "Killer" - belied his appearance with his agile rugby brain, allied with the then essential ability to win the ball from the game's many scrums. He spent three years with Leeds, soaking up tactical and coaching knowledge from a British game that was still well ahead of its equivalent in Australia at that stage.

When he returned home it was to play for the St George club, where he was appointed captain-coach in 1953, introducing the so-called "brick wall" defence that was the foundation of their success.

Although replaced as coach by Norm Tipping, because of his perceived abrasiveness, Kearney was the guiding influence on the field when the Dragons won the first of their historic 11 Grand Finals. He was reinstated for 1957 and was captain-coach for their next six victories, until a chronic knee injury forced his retirement as a player in 1962.

By then, too, Kearney had played 25 rugby league Tests for Australia, touring Britain and France in 1952-53 and 1956-57, as well as playing in two World Cups. On the second of those Kangaroo tours, and also in New Zealand in 1956, he was in the leadership role he relished, as captain-coach.

"Perhaps no other player in the game's history has ever had such a profound influence on a single club as him," said the chairman of the Australian Rugby League, Colin Love:

He possessed a brilliant tactical understanding of the game and it was Ken who devised the blueprint that made St George virtually unbeatable.

The club's policy of combining the coaching and captaincy roles meant that Kearney left in 1963 when he could no longer play, coaching Parramatta to their most successful season since entering the competition. It was at St George, though, that he stamped his formidable personality on a team, making them the hardest side to beat that the code has ever seen.

Dave Hadfield