By Paul Montague
“Hooray boys, I’m off”. Who said that and why? Half the people reading this will probably know already, but stay tuned.
It was forty-five years ago this December (NZ time the morning of the 3rd) when one of the top five controversies in NZ Rugby Union history began. And what’s more, the misdemeanour happened at a hotel bearing a richly ironic name- in light of the reputation and behaviour of the chief protagonist involved. It was the sending home of Keith Murdoch from the fifth official All Blacks team to Britain, chiefly for his king-hit on a security guard named Peter Grant; at the Angel Hotel in Cardiff, Wales. It fascinated me when I first read about it at age eleven and it still does.
The above incident rates as third on my New Zealand rugby F & A (Furore and Aftermath) scale after the 1981 Springbok tour and the Bob Deans hauled back from over the goal-line, no try given of 1905. In fourth spot comes the alleged poisoning of the 1995 All Blacks at the World Cup. Rounding out the roll call of infamy is Barnes-gate in the 2007 World Cup quarter final. (Sir Pinetree Meads’ 1967 ordering off against Scotland would easily be next). The only genuine contender on the L.A.P. (Lost All Perspective) scale is when a large collective of boneheads and reactionaries went off their rockers after the 1999 World Cup semi defeat by France.
If you thought 1905 and 1978 stirred the controversy pot enough with Wales and the All Blacks, then it should be said that 1972 sent it boiling right over the top. The build-up to that ‘72 test preceding the Murdoch incident provided solid motivation for the All Blacks. The halfback Sid Going alluded to this in his biography ‘Super Sid’: ‘We had another dose of resolve-builder on television when they re-ran film of the Llanelli game’. And a documentary was shown of the 1971 Lions’ victorious tour. ‘You wouldn’t have thought that any players from England, Ireland or Scotland had even been on that tour…they made the All Blacks appear hopeless. All of which started a determination among us to succeed the next day’. Added to this was every second Welsh person coming up to them and saying how their nation going to ‘do’ them. (Does all this sound kind of familiar, albeit with less malice from 1972- boot on the other foot; England, Lions playing us nowadays?)
In the match itself, the All Blacks fielded two 21 year-old debutants from the capital in their outside backs. One was fullback Joe Karam (of later David Bain fame), the other the fiery pocket rocket on the left wing, Grant Batty. The Canterbury lock, Hamish MacDonald was also on debut.
Displaying his enduring qualities of doggedness and fearlessness that were to stand him in excellent stead in the future in his legal fights, Karam landed five penalty goals. Being his debut and in that dragon’s den, with still-primitive boots to now, longer grass, no kicking tees and a leather ball, that was quite a feat.
Ironically, the All Blacks’ only try was by Murdoch himself, who rumbled his way through the Wales cover defence following a box kick by Going. Wales should have won but Phil Bennett for once kicked like he had a blindfold on, and a myriad of misses meant the New Zealanders scraped it 19-16. The Welsh fans were very grumpy about a disallowed try to JPR Williams, but the TV replay showed a definite double movement before forcing the ball. Fifty thousand in the Arms Park did not of course have the benefit of a ground replay at that time and so the general antipathy towards the All Blacks grew just that bit more.
In fact, it is doubtful if there has ever been so much bitterness directed towards the All Blacks at that time than at any stage in their history, (although 1978 in Wales could just have been its equal, thanks mostly to Andy Haden’s lineout dive). Incidentally, the ‘72 clash was the first live international test match to be shown back in NZ in the early morning- another reason why it is so iconic.
(view Murdoch’s try from 7’30”)
There would have been more than enough time for Wales’ supporters and dare one say, officials to swap tales of cheated indignance and fuelled by a dented pride in bragging about a certain victory, the scene was set for something explosive to happen at the after-match party at the Angel.
Terry McLean has a very detailed and totally compelling chapter on the whole Murdoch incident before, during and after in his book on the tour called ‘They Missed the Bus-Kirkpatrick’s Men of 1972-73’. In 1990, as a part of the truly excellent series ‘Mud and Glory’, award-winning reporter Margot McRae tracked down NZ Rugby’s enduring man of mystery deep in Queensland sugar-cane country. That meeting is from 19’06” in this video:
It’s easy enough to find some conflicting reports of the actual hit on the security guard, Peter Grant. What is not in dispute at all is that Grant was hit, was left with a resultant huge shiner, and the assailant was Murdoch. What has always been in dispute however, is who exactly ordered Murdoch to be sent home from the tour. Most around the team maintain it was the Secretary of the Four Home Unions who put pressure on the team manager, Ernie Todd to send Murdoch packing. That story was never properly corroborated by Todd himself and of course the Home Unions will always categorically deny they had a direct hand in Murdoch’s fate.
Whatever did take place though was pretty tragic all round. For the morale of a very young All Black team, for Murdoch himself and for Ernie Todd, unfairly cast into the role as possibly the biggest villain of all in the whole affair. And sadly, Todd hid the fact he was already unwell with cancer symptoms at the tour’s commencement. He was to pass away not all that long afterwards.
“Hooray boys, I’m off” was the first the All Blacks heard that Murdoch was leaving them as they waited for the bus to leave for their next hotel a few days later. Murdoch said this comment as he poked his head into the bus. The captain Ian Kirkpatrick is said to have been highly emotional and tried his level best to coax Todd into letting the burly prop stay on.
For the team it was also rather tragic that they were to be denied the first All Black side to achieve a Grand Slam, when after a wretched tour with untold trials and tribulations, a couple of silly late mistakes against Ireland cost them in a last minute 10-10 draw. The fickle hand of fate was very cruel to Kirkpatrick’s team right to the very end. And they also have to suffer the never-ending indignity of being the team on the end of Gareth Edwards’s famous try for the Barbarians that has been repeated on UK television and around the world about sixty thousand times and still counting.
And what do I think? Let me say first that I have devoured so much information on the incident over the years it isn’t funny. I believe Keith Murdoch was probably rightly sent home (it wasn’t his first over-aggressive act as an All Black), but the way the whole incident unfolded just does not sit comfortably. When Murdoch was told he was going it would have come as a shock, as he was apparently initially led to believe he would be in line for a suspension and a severe censure. Many maintain that he was persecuted by the British media. For example, before the team even touched down in Britain, there was a cartoon of Murdoch in a cage depicting him as some sort of uncouth, antipodean wild man. In comparison it makes the Herald cartoon this year of Gatland as a clown appear almost gentrified.
When Murdoch hauled off and belted the security guard, it seems like he was acting out some type of self-fulfilling prophesy- you cast me this way so this is how I shall be. Having said that, a person is of course responsible for their own actions. Whatever exactly went on, one thing is for certain. The whole event will continue to endure for a long, long while yet.
*It was sad to hear of the passing of Simon Dickie. Strangely enough, his greatest sporting moment in winning gold in the Rowing Eight at Munich happened exactly three months to the day before Murdoch’s episode. Two extremely contrasting events within a short space of time.
(You can find me at: email@example.com). ‘The Spotter’