MAN OF MYS­TERY

The Scotsman - - Obituaries -

Keith Mur­doch, rugby union player. Born: 9 Septem­ber 1943 in Dunedin, New Zealand. Died: 30 March 2018 in Aus­tralia, aged 74.

The New Zealand rugby player Keith Mur­doch had a “wild man” rep­u­ta­tion al­most from the start of his ca­reer, when, at 20, he made the fa­mously tough Otago provin­cial team. In an al­ready pun­ish­ing sport, he was fe­ro­cious.

A bar­rel-chested 248lb man, sport­ing a thick, droop­ing mus­tache, Mur­doch was a prop for­ward, a player in the front row of a rugby scrum­mage who spe­cialises in di­rect com­bat with the op­po­si­tion and is ex­pected to be the hard­est of hard men.

Mur­doch’s fear­some rep­u­ta­tion pre­ceded him. When he was cho­sen to tour Bri­tain, Ire­land and France in 1972 with the All Blacks, New Zealand’s na­tional team, a Bri­tish news­pa­per car­toon­ist drew him ar­riv­ing in Lon­don in a cage. The team would later be de­scribed by The Guardian as “ar­ro­gant, boor­ish and prone to hurl­ing ex­ple­tives at au­to­graph-hunt­ing fans”.

The tour proved to be both the high point of Mur­doch’s ca­reer and its end. The first match was in De­cem­ber, against Wales, in Cardiff, a de facto world ti­tle con­test in the era be­fore rugby had a World Cup.

Mur­doch played an enor­mous part in New Zealand’s 19-16 win in that match and scored its only try – a vic­tory that res­onated through­out New Zealand, which treats its rich her­itage in the game with un­matched se­ri­ous­ness.

Af­ter a night of cel­e­brat­ing with team­mates, Mur­doch, in the early morn­ing hours, went into the kitchen of the Angel Ho­tel in Cardiff seek­ing fur­ther re­fresh­ment.

There he en­coun­tered a se­cu­rity guard who, sev­eral All Blacks later re­ported, was clearly spoil­ing for a fight. There are con­flict­ing ac­counts as to what was said and done next, but there was lit­tle doubt that the brawny Mur­doch had grat­i­fied the guard’s wish and left him with a black eye.

Given the guard’s provo­ca­tion, most team­mates ex­pected Mur­doch to face limited dis­ci­plinary ac­tion. In­stead he was or­dered to leave the tour and go home. His team­mates ac­cused the tour man­ager, Ernie Todd, who was strug­gling with the can­cer that would kill him, of cav­ing in to pres­sure from Bri­tish of­fi­cials and the news me­dia.

To this day Mur­doch re­mains the only All Black to have been sent home from an in­ter­na­tional tour.

But Mur­doch, in fact, did not go home. Is­sued with a ticket back to New Zealand, he got off the plane in Singapore and di­verted to Aus­tralia – to the city of Dar­win, on the north­ern coast, the gate­way to the vast, sparsely pop­u­lated North­ern Ter­ri­tory.

And there, for all in­tents and pur­poses, he dis­ap­peared. He “went bush,” as the Aus­tralians say. He be­came a rugby ver­sion of Big­foot and the sub­ject of a play, his leg­end grow­ing in in­verse pro­por­tion to the con­firmed sight­ings of him.

In­deed, the world out­side the drilling sites and sheep sta­tions of the Out­back heard about him only a handful of times, and not at all af­ter 2001. Un­til, that is, on 31 March this year, when the All Blacks, hav­ing re­ceived word from mem­bers of his fam­ily, an­nounced on its Twit­ter feed that Mur­doch had died the pre­vi­ous day at 74.

Doug Baughan, the chair­man of Zin­gari Rich­mond, the club for which Mur­doch once played in his home city, Dunedin, said of the death that “the ex­act cir­cum­stances are not yet clear” – a state­ment that could have ap­plied to al­most the last 46 years of Mur­doch’s life.

Keith Mur­doch was born in Dunedin on 9 Septem­ber 1943. He was ed­u­cated at King Ed­ward Tech­ni­cal Col­lege and played his first adult rugby match for Zin­gari Rich­mond be­fore break­ing into the Otago team in 1964. Vy­ing to join the vaunted All Blacks, he played in sev­eral tri­als, but it wasn’t un­til 1970 – when he toured with Otago in South Africa – that he was in­vited to join the na­tional team.

The Wales match was his third and last in­ter­na­tional con­test for the All Blacks.

Af­ter “go­ing bush,” Mur­doch dropped from sight un­til the late 1970s, when Terry Mclean, the dean of New Zealand’s rugby writ­ers, tracked him down. Mclean came upon him at an oil-drilling site near Perth, cap­i­tal of the state of Western Aus­tralia, only to be ad­vised, firmly and crisply, what he should do to pre­serve life and limb.

“I got back on the bus,” Mclean wrote.

Mur­doch was re­ported to have re­turned briefly to New Zealand a few years later, and to have res­cued a child from drown­ing in a swim­ming pool. But he was soon back in Aus­tralia.

In 1990, Mar­got Mcrae, a jour­nal­ist who was then work­ing as a tele­vi­sion re­searcher, found Mur­doch work­ing on a farm in a re­mote part of Queens­land, in north­east­ern Aus­tralia. She found him more re­cep­tive than Mclean had, de­scrib­ing him as “very happy in him­self ”. But she likened ex­tract­ing in­for­ma­tion from him dur­ing a 45-minute con­ver­sa­tion, con­ducted en­tirely off-camera, as “get­ting blood from a stone”.

She quoted him as say­ing, “I don’t need to tell my story to any­one.” Mcrae went on to write a play about him, Find­ing Mur­doch, which had its pre­miere in Welling­ton, New Zealand, in 2007.

Mur­doch resur­faced pub­licly for the fi­nal time in 2001, fol­low­ing the death of a 20-year-old man who had last been seen trying to break into Mur­doch’s home in Ten­nant Creek, North­ern Ter­ri­tory. Af­ter be­ing ques­tioned twice by the po­lice and called to tes­tify at an in­quest, he broke his me­dia si­lence to in­sist that he had been called purely as a wit­ness. No charges were filed for lack of ev­i­dence, the au­thor­i­ties said, and the in­ves­ti­ga­tion was closed in 2002.

The rugby his­to­rian Lind­say Knight once wrote of Mur­doch: “No All Black has been more con­tro­ver­sial, more enig­matic and more tragic.” New York Times 2018. Dis­trib­uted by NYT Syndication Ser­vice. The Scots­man wel­comes obit­u­ar­ies and ap­pre­ci­a­tions from con­trib­u­tors as well as sug­ges­tions of pos­si­ble obit­u­ary sub­jects. Please con­tact: Gazette Edi­tor n The Scots­man, Level 7, Or­chard Brae House, 30 Queens­ferry Road, Ed­in­burgh EH4 2HS; n gazette@scots­man.com

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