Margot McRae finds Keith Murdoch
A play about the destructive power of the media.
You probably think I have a fixation on Keith Murdoch, but when you've played rugby with an impressive gentle giant, and he ingloriously gets sent home in 1972 from Wales after scoring the All Black's only try, you want to promote the man. Hats off to Margaret McRae for finding him and bringing his story to the stage.
Forget disgraced or notorious, the adjectives usually associated with Keith Murdoch.
In a play being written about his expulsion from the 1972-3 All Black rugby tour of Britain, the former test frontrower will come across as "heroic".
Finding Murdoch is Aucklander Margot McRae's account of the media storm that engulfed the player when he punched a security guard in a Cardiff hotel.
The late-night incident came just hours after the Otago prop had scored the All Blacks' only try in their 19-16 win over Wales at Cardiff Arms Park.
Murdoch was sent home but did not make it back to New Zealand. He got as far as Australia, where he has lived in self-imposed exile.
He hit the headlines again in 2001, when he was cleared of involvement in the death of an Aboriginal man at a remote mine in the Northern Territory.
But that episode apart, he has been able to keep himself largely out of the public spotlight over the past three decades.
The play's storyline ends in 1990, when McRae, then working on the rugby series Mud and Glory, tracked Murdoch down in rural Queensland.
Despite her background as journalist, McRae says the play is as much about the "destructive power" of the media as it is an account of the Murdoch tale.
"If there's a baddie, it would be the media really, and I was part of the media," she said. "I was a reporter, so I'm trying to be honest."
She recalled that Murdoch attracted a "frenzy" of attention when he was ordered home.
"There were terrible cartoons and awful headlines about him."
Murdoch's unyielding reaction had been to maintain his silence, a stance McRae saw as a sign of his dignity.
"That's my impression now," she said. "He was heroic because he didn't talk. He was heroic because he didn't ask for sympathy.
"He didn't seek any media glorification. That's what I mean by heroic. He wasn't going to play a media game. He had his own rules."
McRae contrasted that with present-day reality television "where you ask people to come in and be manipulated and made fools of".
McRae was able to speak to Murdoch for about 45 minutes when she located him in the Queensland town of Tully.
He refused to be interviewed on camera, but allowed himself to be filmed by McRae's crew.
"I tried to get as much information out of him as I could, which was like getting blood from a stone," she said. "But he was absolutely affable and pleasant. He was very happy in himself, it seemed to me.
"He didn't tell me too much because he said, 'Why should I? I don't need to tell my story to anyone'."
The next day, McRae said, she did something she regretted. She went to get more shots of him at the farm where he worked.
When she called out to him as he was working away with a machete, he ran off.
"I was just doing my job, but I didn't like what I had done," she said. "I thought it was unfair on him and I felt guilty about it."
McRae said her meeting with Murdoch remained the incident that she remembered the most from her days as a journalist.
"I worked on a lot of documentaries and other stories, but that one definitely sticks in the mind," she said. "It won't go away."
Finding Murdoch went through an Auckland Theatre Company workshop last month.
McRae, who is making amendments to the script, had her "fingers crossed" that the finished product would find its way on to the stage.
See article I wrote on Keith Murdoch