Saturday, 24 November 2012

Keith Murdoch mystery. Remember that day NZ vs Wales in Cardiff 1972?

Keith Murdoch (left) was my hero when I was a teenager. I was 17 years old and he must have been 23 when I got the chance to play with him. I must of played about five games with him that season, 1966.

He had represented Otago as a 20-year-old prop in 1964, then had a season with Ponsonby and one with Marist in Napier before returning to Dunedin. That was when I played with him. He was somewhat unfit and so he decided to start the season off playing for Zingari Richmond in the Dunedin second grade competition.

I remember that cold Otago winter of 1966, when we played on a frost covered ground against Eastern at Waikouwai-iti. I was a wing three quarter and my job was to throw the ball in at line out time. There was something unsettling about throwing it to Murdoch, a hulk of a man who physical presence was magnetic. The first time I threw the ball in, it was crooked. Murdoch glared at me. The second time I threw it in off centre. Murdoch grabbed me by the shirt and said, “Next time throw the fuckin’ ball in straight.” The threatening look in his deep eyes convinced me to improve instantaneously, I improved and never threw the ball in crooked again to Keith Murdoch. I was 17 and not fully physically developed, and a couple of the opposition forwards picked on me and roughed me up. Murdoch must have seen it and said, “next time someone hits you, give me his number.”

A few minutes later, a prop with No. 14 on his back, punched me in a tackle. I looked at Keith Murdoch, and said " No. 14.” A few minutes later No. 14 was on the ground, half conscious, and cowering. No one picked on me for the remainder of the game. I had found a grumpy Godfather.

We had a great after match function, and after consuming huge quantifies of beer, Keith offered to drive me home in his olive green Mini Minor. Imagine a 130 kg hulk of muscle getting into a small mini. About 30 mins later, he didn't quite make a corner somewhere south of Cherry Farm and the car slid off the road into a grassy ditch. I offered to help Keith manhandle the car back onto the road. He glared at me with disdain. "Leave it alone boy" he said, "I'll do it myself." With that said, Murdoch lifted, bounced, wrenched and slid the mini up the side of a a 3 metre ditch, skewed it onto the road, straightened the car up like a city slicker straightening his tie, and wiped his hand on the back of his tight shorts.

The famous Peter Bush photographs of Keith Murdoch leaving his hotel in Cardiff

We stopped at the Ravensborne pub for a few more jugs and Murdoch gave me a man-to-boy talk about how to play rugby.

A schoolmate, Nev Cleveland, told me recently he was a neighbour to the Murdoch family in Ravensbourne. Nev was the milk boy and remembers delivering 12 pints of milk to Keith's home daily. He told me that one Sunday morning about 7 am, he met Keith 'as pissed as a fart' crawling home on hands and knees. We both recalled Keith's older brother Bruce, a bricklayer, who was also a fine rugby player.

I also have pleasant memories of drinking after games we played at Montecillo, and walking through the southern cemetery, or drivinng to the closet pub at the southern end of the Oval. Wyndam Barkman, Frosty are some of the other players who come to mind. Murdoch was generally kind and protective of his friends and a pleasure to drink with. He choose his words carefully and added colour and zest to conversations. I am happy he is living a peaceful life in outback Australia.

Murdoch was often the subject of rugby talk, some of it about his not inconsiderable rugby ability, much of it about his behaviour.

A favourite story was of Keith Murdoch towing a car up a Dunedin hill, clasping the tow rope in his teeth! I could believe it !

 He also mentioned to me that he liked being alone and enjoyed his own company. Murdoch went on to live a large part of his life alone. It is a mysterious story.

Murdoch toured Wales in 1972 and achieved notoriety after scoring the opening try of the first Test.

Following the match he argued with the tour manager, assaulted a security guard at the tourist's hotel and was promptly dispatched on the first plane home.

Well known writer David Haviland writes in his blog posting "In 1979, Murdoch paid a brief visit to New Zealand, and was seen saving the life of a drowning toddler, by giving the child mouth-to-mouth resuscitation for four minutes."

He never reached Auckland and instead made the Australian outback his home where he lived in relative obscurity until the discovery of Kumanjai Limerick's body last October. Then the mystery man hit the media in 2001.

Left, a rare photo of Keith Murdoch in Australia in 2001

BBC - 24 June 2001

According to the Times newspaper, Keith Murdoch, the former All Black forward who was sent home early from the 1972-3 tour of the British Isles, is wanted for questioning over the murder of an Aboriginal man in the remote Northern Territory.

The Dunedin-born Murdoch, already a controversial and mysterious figure, was dismissed from the All Black tour for attacking a security guard in Cardiff.

Instead of returning to New Zealand, he disembarked in Singapore and travelled to Darwin under an assumed name, before losing himself in the outback.

One New Zealand journalist who traced Murdoch to a logging camp in the 1970s was allegedly threatened and left in haste.

Murdoch was not heard of again until an inquest into the death of Kumanjayi Limerick was held on 15 June. It was adjourned until next month.

'No stopping'

The outback community where Murdoch has lived for 10 years is the remote copper-mining town of Tennant Creek.

It is little more than a dot on the 1,900-mile Stuart Highway through central Australia. The Lonely Planet Guide advises travellers not to go there.

So complete has been Murdoch's disappearance that police trying to trace him have had to issue photographs from the 1970s.

Locals, however, say he is now a grey-haired 57-year-old, still with a massive physique and by all accounts feared by the Aboriginal community in a place of simmering racial tensions.

Murdoch, who was known as a loner, played one Test apiece against South Africa, Australia and Wales.


The Northern Territory coroner heard evidence that Limerick, a 20-year-old alcoholic, broke into Murdoch's house on 6 October last year.

The inquest was told that Limerick had burgled the house at least twice before.

On the night in question he was allegedly heard by a neighbour pleading not to be "bashed".

Limerick was reportedly taken to Noble's Nob, a disused mine near the town, around 6 October.

He was reportedly seen there alive but disorientated. He decomposed body was found about three weeks later.

Murdoch was questioned, but not charged. He left town soon after the body was discovered and there is now a territory wide search for him as a potentially crucial inquest witness.

It seems the mystery of Keith Murdoch continues.

Keith Murdoch was a man of principles and I know he would never have killed any man. Defended himself, yes. Read what a women journalist wrote about him some years later and was so impressed she wrote a play about him.


James Williamson said...

How can you say he should never have been sent home? This is no gentle giant, Bob, but a man possessed by demons whose thirst for violence was not satisfied even by rugby at All Black level. That should tell you something. Your story about number 14 runs true to form. That guy - no matter how dirty he played in the maul - left "cowering and unconscious" is a measure of Murdoch's total lack of a sense of proportion in relation to his instinct for violence. The guy was sick and needed treatment. Instead, he ran away, escaped into a sordid frontier society. But as it says in The Art of Travel, you can't leave yourself behind. Looks like he has finally caught up with himself.

Gollum said...

I remember the classic comment by the English rugby writer John Reason who said that Murdoch was a good friend to have in a fight. But with a friend like Murdoch you would be in a lot of fights.

Murdoch played at a time when violence was part of the game and he was just one of a number of very hard men of the age who took particular pleasure in a good old stoush.

You just have to check the number of hits on YouTube for the league and rugby fight clips to see that interest in the fisticuffs remains high.

Cheers Gollum

Graeme said...

Great article Bob, was wondering what ever happened to our famous Otago man. I remember the story of towing the car up hill, he was a legend in our time. I hope he just gets his wish to be left alone.
Cheers Graeme.

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