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HomeNew Zealand'Part of our legacy': The Keith Murdoch affair 50 years on

‘Part of our legacy’: The Keith Murdoch affair 50 years on

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Keith Murdoch.
Photo: Photosport

“You never ask anyone where they’re from or what they’re doing here because you know that everyone is running away from something.” – Tennant Creek local, 2001.

The Angel Hotel sits on the corner of Castle and Westgate Streets in Cardiff, overlooking the River Taff. It’s not far from Principality Stadium where the All Blacks meet Wales on Sunday morning. The stone outer edifice of the Angel has stood there looking grand ever since it was constructed sometime in the 18th century, and it’s fair to say it looks more or less the same as it did exactly 50 years ago.

It’s a famous place in Wales, due to its grand design and proximity to the famous rugby grounds, but it was then, in 1972, that it came to the attention of everyone in New Zealand.

The Keith Murdoch affair is one that has grown a life of its own ever since that fateful night after the All Blacks beat Wales by 19-16 at the old Cardiff Arms Park. The short version is that 29-year-old, 110kg prop Murdoch scored a try in that game, drank heavily afterwards in the Angel and punched out security guard Peter Grant in a kitchen. All Black manager Ernie Todd subsequently sent Murdoch home, but what has held people’s attention is what happened next.

The legend is that Murdoch got to Singapore, never got on the plane back to New Zealand and redirected himself to the Australian outback, where he stayed living as a recluse.

The truth is a bit less cinematic, but only a little bit. Murdoch had garnered a reputation not only as a hard man and hard drinker, but also as an itinerant player. He spent seasons with Hawke’s Bay, Auckland and Otago in an era when moving around wasn’t common. So, after the ejection from the 1972-73 All Black tour of the UK, that’s exactly what he went back to doing, save for the playing rugby part.

Murdoch worked around Australia before ending up in the Northern Territory. He even came back to New Zealand for a while, but this was the 70s and 80s and if you wanted to keep a low profile, it’s an awful lot easier than it is today.

It’s strange even trying to imagine something of that magnitude that happened in such a massively different era of rugby, but still close enough that some of the people who were literally in the room when it happened are still alive and kicking. This was an era when the media would routinely fraternise with the players, drinking at the bar and gaining insight through constant contact. However Murdoch was infamously short with journalists, with most interactions being little more than a two word phrase telling them where to go.

The irony of an off-field indiscretion half a century ago having such severe ramifications that it resulted in a self-imposed exile, as opposed to today’s often criticised name suppression for sports stars that seems to sweep it all under the carpet, is pretty palpable. Todd’s role in sending Murdoch out into oblivion has been analysed ever since, with the tragic fact that the All Black manager was secretly suffering from terminal cancer at the time only revealed when he passed away in 1974 (Todd’s daughter has since claimed that Murdoch had actually threatened a female employee of the Angel before Grant was assaulted, and that Cardiff police had said that as long as he left town, they wouldn’t press charges on her behalf).

Murdoch successfully managed to keep clear of any real attention until 2001, when he was summoned to court to answer questions regarding petty thief Christopher Kumanjai Limerick, whose decomposed body was found at the bottom of an abandoned mine shaft near Tennant Creek, Northern Territory. Murdoch’s involvement in just how Limerick got there has been talked about ever since, with the inherent seediness of the situation well captured here.

It was then that the Murdoch story went from a sports bar yarn to something pretty dark, because you can’t talk about his famous disappearing act without mentioning how the cameras finally did catch up with him outside a dusty courthouse in the remote Australian wilderness.

We’ll never know exactly what happened. Keith Murdoch died in 2018, shortly before he was supposed to meet his son for the first time, who was conceived before the fateful tour in 1972.

***

The All Blacks aren’t staying at the Angel this week, they’re down near the harbour in some place that looks like the set of a drug cartel headquarters in an 80s action movie. It was there that coach Ian Foster, talking to the press as they prepare to face Wales for the 37th time, acknowledged the Murdoch story as “part of our history.”

“We have a tradition that we go to the Angel and have a chat about it as a team. Just to talk about one of our men and what he went through. There were some rights and wrongs, and plenty of learnings for us as a team.”

It’s tempting to think that the fallout from the Murdoch incident played a role in the extremely defensive attitude adopted by the All Blacks over the years in dealing with the media, as it is a serious instance in which their dirty laundry has been aired out in public. But really, any sort of level of increased scrutiny would have likely seen it happen regardless.

Whether you view Murdoch as a wronged man or a violent thug, it was interesting to hear that half a century on, the All Blacks at least keep him in the back of their minds whenever they visit Cardiff. After all, whatever the view of him is, he still wore the same jersey as the players of today. The All Blacks often talk about their history with a serious degree of cherry picking only the good bits, but Foster was happy to admit that the one unusually mysterious chapter about a man who tried to make everyone forget about him will live on long in All Black lore.

“He is part of our legacy and history, and one this team will be remembering.”

Story Credit: rnz.co.nz

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