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 248 pounds, sporting a thick, drooping mustache, Murdoch was a prop forward, a player in the front row of a rugby scrummage who specializes 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 touchdown (called a try in rugby) — 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 March 31, when the All Blacks, having received word from members of his family, announced on its Twitter feed that Murdoch had died the day before 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 Sept. 9, 1943. He was educated at King Edward Technical College and played his first adult rugby match for Zingari Richmond before breaking onto 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, in the 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.”