International Man of Mystery

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A naturally quiet and loyal man, Keith Murdoch somehow garnered a reputation for being wild and out of control. It was that wrongful portrayal that perhaps led to him disappearing into the Australian outback after being sent home from an All Blacks tour of the UK. TONY JOHNSON with the story.

New Zealand rugby union footballer Keith Murdoch (1943 - 2018) is sent home from the UK following a violent incident at his hotel during the All Blacks tour, 5th December 1972. (Photo by Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

No All Black has ever been shrouded in mystery quite like Keith Murdoch.

The hardest thing is separating fact from fantasy, and the reality is that few people are still around who can.

Since his banishment from the tumultuous All Blacks tour of 1972-1973, Murdoch has lived a reclusive life in the back blocks of Australia, occasionally reappearing in the headlines before slipping back into the shadows.

It is not true to say he has never been back to New Zealand, but all attempts to reunite with his team-mates for even the most low key of gatherings have failed, all efforts by the media to coax him into telling “his side of the story” shunned.

And so we are left with the tales, and the images, notably the famous Peter Bush photograph of Murdoch atEuston Station en route to Heathrow and a plane bound for ignominy.

It was branded a scandal, but in truth, it is a sad story.

When Murdoch became an AllBlack in 1970 he already had a reputation, mostly concerning his huge frame and immense strength, stories that grew with every telling.

Such as the time a mate’s car broke down and whilst they had a tow rope, Murdoch’s car had no tow bar, so he simply wrapped his end of the wire rope about his massive forearms and drove off dragging the stricken car behind him.

Or so it goes.

There was certainly no doubting his strength or his toughness, as Colin Meads found out in the trials to select the team to tour South Africa. Murdoch had been niggling Meads to“have a go”, and so the 'Tree' obliged, throwing what he considered a pretty good punch, catching the Otago man flush, leaving Murdoch unflinching and Meads nursing a cracked knuckle.

His first tour to South Africa was dogged by misfortune.

He ended up in plaster early on after some horsing around left him with a broken ankle, but made a strong return late in the tour, pulverising former Springboks prop Ronnie Potgieter in the Northern Transvaal game and earning a place in the final test, which he played in great pain because of a rumbling appendix.

At 28 Murdoch looked set to anchor the All Blacks scrum for the foreseeable future, but nothing ever went to script for the man they called 'Keefy'.

He was a no show on the ’71Lions tour, withdrawing from the Otago team just hours before kickoff with a rib injury, although again, the apocryphal stories raged, including one that he had fallen asleep on a fishing trawler and woken up at sea. That was a doozy.

He also pulled out of contention for the All Blacks, leaving them with an unbalanced front row that was fully exploited by the Lions.

His absence merely stoked the fires of the British media.

Acclaimed author and playwright Greg McGee, who played in the Otago game, tells how veteran British writer John Reason appeared at a midweek training session at Tahuna Park and tried to engage Murdoch in a conversation while he was testing out his injury with some scrum practice.

“Keith turned around and told him to “F off,” and that’s where it started, from there on Reason ran theBritish media campaign against Keith.”

By the time the All Blacks arrived for their UK tour in late 1972, Murdoch was being portrayed as the caged wild man, and if the relentless media attention wasn’t enough, he immediately fell foul of team manager Ernie Todd.

Teammates still recall the shock of seeing Todd publicly castigate Murdoch right at the start of the tour at an innocuous gathering in their hotel bar.

“He really didn’t like Keith,”recalls Tane Norton, “He thought he was uncouth.”

Ian Kirkpatrick puts it more bluntly. “He had his digs into Keith from the start.”

Murdoch, Todd, the media and the Welsh in particular, were on a collision course, and it came to a head inCardiff on December 2, 1972.

The All Blacks had won the test at the Arms Park amidst volcanic tension, thanks to a try by Murdoch and five penalties in a remarkable début by 21-year-old fullback Joe Karam.

The Welsh were fuming. They’d been desperate for a first win over the All Blacks since 1953 and had gone into the match overflowing with confidence after the Lions win in New Zealand the previous year and the shock defeat of the touring side by Llanelli.

They’d fallen short, thanks to a disallowed JPR Williams try and some nervy, errant kicking by fly-half PhilBennett.

The New Zealand All Blacks rugby team posing for a team photo in Grosvenor Square as they arrive for a tour of Great Britain, 25th October 1972. Back row left to right, Ian Kirkpatrick, captain, next to Keith Murdoch, (Photo by Roger Jackson/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The after match dinner did little to ease tensions, with the older Welsh brigade especially bitter and twisted about the events of the afternoon, and the Wales players given free access to a bar at one end of the room, while the All Blacks paid for their drinks at the other.

It was during this dinner that the fuse was lit for the events of later in the night.

In the newly published book Behind the Silver Fern, Bob Burgess describes how Murdoch was goaded by one of the Welsh front rowers who repeatedly questioned his ability and his intelligence.Burgess was surprised Murdoch didn’t lash out then and there.

In the end the All Blacks went back to the Angel Hotel to celebrate amongst themselves.

In those days it was not uncommon for rugby teams to leave a trail of damage behind, the Lions of 71, 74and 77 having featured a group known as 'the wreckers'. The 72-73 All Blacks may not have been quite the destructive villains they were painted as, but they were not exactly choir boys either.

At one point in the evening, security staff took exception to the noise levels, and accompanied by a GermanShepherd straining at its leash, entered a room where some of the players were partying and told them to break it up. This brought tensions close to boiling point.

At around 1am Murdoch went into the kitchens looking for something to eat, where he was confronted by security guard Peter Grant, who ordered him to leave.

An argument began, and both the manager and other players were summonsed to try to quell the situation.

Prop Graham Whiting claims to have quietened things down, before an “under the weather” Todd burst into the room, and without hesitation announced, “that’s it Murdoch, this time you’re going home”.

According to Whiting, it was then that Murdoch decided if he was going, then he was going to “make a job of it” and belted Grant.

Murdoch himself later disputed that chain of events, and so too did Todd, by way of a cassette recording he’d sent home during the tour, given by Todd's widow (he died in 1974) to Radio NZ journalist Garry Ahern in 1990 in response to comments in the Kirkpatrick biography.

“These buggers wouldn’t leave him alone,” he said. “Just when I had quietened him down he turned around and took to them…there were men milling around and he was knocking them down. They were trying to slam him against the wall and one of the security guards rushed in with a baton. I said, 'Don’t you dare use that, I’ll call the police'.”

When things calmed down, andGrant had rushed off to parade his black eye to the media, it did seem briefly that the matter would be dealt with in-house.

The All Blacks players were adamant Murdoch had been provoked by the Welsh in general, and in particular the security guard whose story became more graphic with every telling.

After initial discussions with management, captain Kirkpatrick was satisfied that Murdoch would be disciplined but would remain with the team, and he was still there when they took a bus toBirmingham on the Sunday.

But on the Monday Kirkpatrick was shocked to learn that Todd, after overnight discussions with NZRFU chairman Jack Sullivan and Home Unions officials, had changed his mind again. Murdoch was going home.

Murdoch left for Heathrow where he boarded his flight, only to get off in Singapore and head for Darwin, and his self-imposed exile.

To this day Kirkpatrick has regrets.

“I still think about it every time Keith Murdoch’s name comes up, I should have said ‘if he goes we all go’.

“Keith hadn’t misbehaved on that tour…The British media had it in for us.”

Like his team mates, Kirkpatrick is adamant Todd bowed to pressure from Home Union officials.

They didn’t know it at the time, but Todd had terminal cancer. As the illness deteriorated and the pressures of the tour mounted, he had begun to drink heavily.

“One man trying to run the tour and practically on his death bed,” recalls Norton with some sympathy. “TheRugby Union really set him up badly…it was pretty sad.”

Murdoch has occasionally returned to the spotlight he so detests. Having written so caustically of theAll Blacks on that tour, it was brave of veteran journalist TP McLean to trackMurdoch down in Western Australia, a meeting that lasted but a few seconds.

In 1979 Murdoch was credited with saving the life of a young girl, found drowning in a Timaru swimming pool, but again, he scarpered before any reporters could get near him.

Then, 10 years later TVNZ journalist Margot McCrae fared better, and managed to chat with Murdoch in a remote Queensland town, without being able to secure the break through interview.

Keith Murdoch outside the Tennant Creek Court House, Wednesday morning, Murdoch had been summonsed to appear (July25) at the Coroners inquest into the mysterious death of local Aboriginal youth Kumanjai Limerick. (Photo by Ross Land/Getty Images)

Then in 2001, Murdoch was called as a witness into the mysterious death of an aboriginal man whom Murdoch had some weeks earlier caught trying to break into his house.

Christopher Limerick was found dead in an abandoned mine, and whilst Murdoch was not a suspect, there was inevitable speculation, particularly as police took some time to track him down to interview him.

He spoke to a newspaper reporter long enough to deny any involvement, and appeared in court where his testimony was of little value.

And he really hasn’t been see nor heard of since.

Like everything else in theMurdoch story, the death of Limerick will be forever a puzzle.

The few people that really did know Murdoch's side of the Cardiff story are no longer with us.

He shared his version of events with Lyn Colling, a man in whom Murdoch had great trust and whose presence would almost certainly have quelled the kitchen fracas.

Colling, refused through the rest of his tragically shortened life to betray Murdoch's confidence, with one exception.

So concerned was he with the disparity between what Murdoch told him and the published version of events, Colling told two NZRFU councillors. Nothing ever came of it and both have both died, taking the story with them.

Murdoch himself, it is safe to say, will never tell.

To a man, his mates on that turbulent tour will tell you of a great team man, a man of few words, a player of immense strength, no angel for sure, but not quite the monster he was portrayed as. A man not likely to start trouble, but who could be egged into it by others, and a man who constantly had to deal with drunken fans trying to bait him into a fight.

To the rest of us he remains a man of enduring mystery.

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