To many Rotorua people Mark Irwin was the doctor who brought them into the world, sent them to sleep in the operating theatre or was their caring GP.

To many others he was their All Blacks idol of the 1950s into the early 1960s during which time he played 25 games in the coveted black jersey, seven of them tests.

His death on Saturday after a prolonged battle with health problems has seen the final whistle blown on one of the city's legendary sports heroes and medical men.

His death at 83 came 63 years after he played his first All Blacks test against Australia.

Advertisement

His sporting prowess apart, he was a devoted family man. His wife of 15 years Lynne Irwin describes him as a wonderful father to his six children, giving them a magical outdoors life.

"When he retired he apologised for not seeing them enough because of his busy life. They said 'that's not true you were a marvellous father'."

Dr Mark Irwin garnered many loyal patients in his time as a Rotorua GP. Photo/File
Dr Mark Irwin garnered many loyal patients in his time as a Rotorua GP. Photo/File

In her eyes her husband was a happy, contented man with a wonderful sense of humour, "a true gentleman who didn't hold grudges".

Nor did he talk of his sporting glory days. "He was very self-effacing," she said.

Rugby was not the only code where Mark was selected to represent his country.

In 1956 his name featured in the rowing eight chosen for the 1956 Melbourne Olympics but for some reason that remains a mystery the eights didn't get to cross the Tasman. In an Our People profile in 2014 Mark suspected it was a "money thing".

He played his first game of rugby aged 5, started rowing at 12. As he said then "I'd play rugby to get fit for summer, row to get fit for winter".

He was in Wanganui Collegiate 1st XV and a member of its eight when the school won its first Maadi Cup.

Advertisement

A surfer from his Gisborne childhood days, he swam for Collegiate, was a heavyweight boxing champ twice over, was handy with the shot put and was head boy, along with acquiring an academic record that earmarked him for a career in medicine. At Otago University he was a double blue representing his alma mater in both rowing and rugby, playing in New Zealand Universities and Otago provincial sides. His medical studies went on hold in 1955 when he was first selected for the All Blacks.

The New Zealand Rugby Union confirms he was the youngest prop to have debuted for the All Blacks. Records refer to his "immense natural strength ... being especially effective in the tight head scrum".

Injuries sidelined him while playing against the Springboks infamous 1956 New Zealand tour but he returned to the top team, ironically touring in South Africa in 1960 where a serious car crash put an end to his All Blacks days. But Mark wasn't done with rugby — he played for Poverty Bay and Bay of Plenty in 1961 and 62 respectively.

By then he'd settled in Rotorua, playing for Old Boys and going into practice with the late Doctors Ian McPhail and Dick Sill where his interest in maternity care was born.

Administering anaesthetics was another speciality.

For 40 years he farmed deer on his Tauranga Direct Rd property. Golf was a post-rugby passion.

A former practice partner, Dr Hugh Townend, said Mark was a true family doctor. "He was on call 24/7 with a loyal following of patients. He loved his profession and in retirement was still attending medical conferences."

Rotorua mayor Steve Chadwick who "facilitated" the meeting between Mark and his wife paid tribute to him as a man of great stature.

"For the local health sector his passing is the end of an era. He wasn't someone who became involved in the politics of health — he just got on with the job. He was a very deft clinician and people trusted him — he was a very safe pair of hands."

New Zealand Rugby chief executive Steve Tew said: "On the field, Irwin left an impression as a powerful scrummager in his 25 appearances in the black jersey.

"Off the field he was committed to his community and will certainly be missed."

Mark is survived by his wife, six children and 10 grandchildren. His funeral service will be held at St Luke's at 1pm on Thursday.