Adam Hathaway, rugby correspondent of The People, looks back at story that rocked rugby in the 1970s and salutes suffering Saracens fans as they exited Europe.
Younger readers might not have heard of Keith Murdoch, the former All Black prop who died last week aged 74, but he was big news back in 1972 and never far from it, and rampant speculation, ever since.
Murdoch’s story is one of a player cut down in his prime because of one drunken escapade that meant he spent more than 40 years suffering for. And that is a crying shame – not that Murdoch would ever cry.
He was a bear of a man who toured with Ian Kirkpatrick’s New Zealand team that season, a trip that would feature a game against the Barbarians, in 1973, made famous by ‘that try’ from Gareth Edwards.
Murdoch was not about by then.
He had done a runner.
That was a proper tour though. The Kiwis kicked off with a 31-9 win over British Columbia in Vancouver on 19 October 1972. By the time they finished up against France in Paris they had played 32 times, won 25, drawn two and lost five and it was 10 February 1973.
As one of RugbySpy’s colleagues remarked in Dublin this weekend you really felt you knew this team – this was not an in-and-out job. They were all over the papers for months when we were kids.
They were a group of brooding massive men, mostly with fantastic moustaches, who came from a place that seemed a million miles away – and they could play rugby.
‘Grizz’ Wylie, Sid Going, Alan Sutherland, Tane Norton, Kirkpatrick and the rest were top players.
And Murdoch was going to become the headline act.
Because the papers went dolly when he gave a hotel guard a bunch of fives and headed into sporting exile. For life.
In December 1972, Murdoch scored New Zealand’s only try in their 19-16 win over Wales at the Arms Park and duly did what any self-respecting front rower would do.
He went on the sauce.
And like any self-respecting front rower after more than a few beers he got hungry and fancied another pint.
So Murdoch went into the kitchen at the Angel Hotel in Cardiff where he tied to get hold of some nosh before being apprehended by a security guard by the name of Peter Grant who came from Cwmbran.
Details are sketchy but in the book Behind the Silver Fern, Playing Rugby for New Zealand, Bryan Williams, the All Blacks’ wing, told authors Tony Johnson and Lynn McConnell the following.
“He had been confronted by a security guard,” recounted Williams. “Then Ernie Todd, the tour manager, came into the kitchen saying ‘Right Murdoch, you’re going home’. From what I can make of it, that’s when Keith said, ‘Well, if I’m going home I will make a job of it’ and that is when he waded into the guard.”
Todd was a sick man at the time, he had terminal cancer, and was under the cosh. According to veteran journalists who were working on the story the team were not the most popular to visit these shores and pandemonium ensued.
Murdoch took himself off to Heathrow, onto a plane and into sporting infamy. He did not make it back to New Zealand though as he reportedly switched planes in Singapore and headed to Darwin instead of Auckland.
Murdoch had gone and no-one could find him.
If he had been a modern sportsman he would have taken himself off the team’s WhatsApp group but that wasn’t available so he just did one and disappeared into thin air.
The case of the missing Murdoch, especially for Kiwi hacks, was like a cross between trying to track down the Loch Ness Monster and Big Foot.
Somewhere, in the wilds of Australia apparently, lurked this mountain of a man who had brought Kiwi rugby into disrepute. Not all his team mates agreed though and in the years since many of them have wondered why they did not all exit stage left when Murdoch was given the elbow.
As it was Murdoch spent 46 years dodging the limelight, sometimes in Australia and more occasionally in New Zealand. One obituary published last week described the former tight-head as the Lord Lucan of the Antipodes.
As hooker Norton said: “Four of us, including myself and Kirky, did a videotape and said things to him, that we would love to see him. But he never replied. He was an unbelievable prop – God he was strong.”
A couple of very brave journalists did get to sight the Lesser Spotted Murdoch.
In the late 1970s, Terry Maclean, the most famous Kiwi rugby writer of the lot, did find Murdoch at oil-drilling site, near Perth, in Western Australia.
He had his scoop alright – it was as big a deal as when Colin MacKenzie, then of the Daily Express, helped to track down the Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs in Brazil in 1974.
So Maclean had his man in his sights. There was one small problem though.
Murdoch was not talking apart from to tell Mclean to ‘get back on the bus’. The former All Black was as strong as an ox and had a spanner in his hand……so Mclean got back on the bus.
There were stories doing the rounds in the early 1980s that Murdoch had saved a young boy from drowning and there was also a court appearance in Northern Territory in connection with the death of young Aborigine who Murdoch had discovered breaking into his home.
The youth, Kumanjai Limerick, was found dead in a well but no evidence came to light.
In between times a journalist called Margot McRae found Murdoch in a pub in Tully, Queensland, where the exile bought her a beer and agreed to have a chinwag off the record.
McRae, who was working on a rugby series called ‘Mud and Glory’, had about 45 minutes with Murdoch and in 2007 wrote a play called ‘Finding Murdoch’ about the episode.
It was put on again during the 2011 World Cup and RugbySpy and a few fellow hacks went to see a performance of it in Auckland where we were lucky to meet the remarkable McRae.
McRae had said: “He was a deeply shy person, not very articulate. He felt it was better to be quiet than be embarrassed. He was not going to come home and be confronted by reporters.”
And the impression we got was that she almost regretted having tracked him down – but the toothpaste wouldn’t go back in the tube and Murdoch mania was on again and quite right – it was a great play.
But he managed to keep his head down.
For many years All Black teams playing in Wales would venture to the Angel Hotel and have a beer for Murdoch. They always reserved a seat for him but he never turned up.
And he won’t be turning up now and that is 40-plus years in the wilderness for one misdemeanour.
What a waste.
Saracens left Dublin on Sunday without their Champions Cup title after the 30-19 loss to Leinster at a freezing Aviva Statium and let’s hope they got back all right.
Saracens, for whom Mako Vunipola and Alex Goode were off the scale, did what a champion team does. They went out on their shields – this was no whimpering surrender. They just got done by a better team on the day.
And there were some champion supporters who made the trip over the Irish Sea.
RugbySpy would not be surprised if there are a few hardy Sarries’ fans still propping up the bar near to gate 117 at Dublin airport.
If it was not enough to see your team, two-time winners, go down to the champions-elect it seems there are plenty of supporters who spent a bit more time in the Irish capital than they had actually planned.
Great place and all that but if you have some time to kill in Dublin you head down to Temple Bar or O’Connell Street – you don’t go to the airport for a Guinness.
RugbySpy was on the 9.50pm back to Stansted on the Sunday night, with Godders from the i newspaper, and we knew we were in a world of trouble.
The iron bird was delayed by a couple of hours, got in after the last train left Stansted and spent an hour on the ground whilst they got the stairs to the plane so they could liberate us all. A combination of coach and taxi means RugbySpy made his penthouse Hackney apartment before the newsagent opened – just.
But there is one fact you should know if you are stuck in Dublin airport on a Sunday night.
They shut the bars in Terminal One at 9pm, which is fine if you have what is normally one of the last flights out at about 10pm.
But the bars near the gates have to stay open until the final flight, delay or no delay, has left the ground.
Incredibly the pints are cheaper there as well.
There were a group of Sarries’ fans waiting for the last flight to Luton which was even more delayed than ours.
They were on a short haul flight but they were in for the long haul and we salute them. On a sporting front they had had a pig of a day but were determined to make the best of a bad job.
Wonder if they made it back?