Poor old Keith Murdoch. We still can’t leave him in peace. Don’t worry, me either. He’s the New Zealand narrative of the tales of the Yeti and Loch Ness. And he could well be pursued with an even greater zeal now that he’s dead and gone. Ron Palenski’s book must surely be a cracking read though.
(I’ve had to re-visit my thoughts a bit of late last year in regards to whether Murdoch should have been sent home immediately from the tour. I’m 50/50 now after reading some of Terry McLean’s book on the tour for the first time in ages).
We’ve always had a need to know the exact details of the fateful night and early morning of December 2 & 3, 1972 at the Angel Hotel in Cardiff, but that’s not even close to why the story has endured as it still does. It’s more about us having a rather morbid and slightly unhealthy mix of curiosity and sympathy about who Keith Murdoch actually was.
It’s the aura of Murdoch himself. He had a massive frame; that certainly helped the legend grow. All the pursuits of Murdoch in the years afterwards didn’t take place for the fact he gave a haughty security guard a right shiner. It’s almost exclusively down to the myth and mystique factor, pushed forever up the interest scale by his going bush in the Australian outback after being banished from the tour.
And he never did come back to this country (as far as anyone knows). It’s almost a small wonder we never succumbed to the Elvis spotting-syndrome, with reported sitings of Murdoch at a Hokitika service station or a Naseby pub. Though that type of thing did happen over the ditch every so often.
It’s of course cast-iron now that we’ll never get the story of precisely what happened with Keith Murdoch on the loathsome night at the Angel, where, in an atmosphere perhaps best described as foreboding, Welsh agitation at losing a controversial, close one they had talked themselves into winning bubbled away like a leek soup with the element left on too high.
Nor will we ever know the true aftermath of the whole gut-wrenching mess. The emotional toll on his team mates must have been awful. Quite how they did so well in the three remaining internationals in Britain is a minor miracle. They were desperately unlucky, in fact more like fated, not to achieve the first-ever Grand Slam by an All Black team to Britain. The Irish came back right at the end for 10-10 in the last test match- by all accounts very fortunately. The spirits really did have it in for those unfortunate All Blacks.
If the British media of Fleet St were already like a pack of bloodhounds snapping at the heels of our overall frighteningly-young team, after the Murdoch incident they morphed into angry pitbulls. No surprises there, probably. It was jugular or bust.
‘IN QUESTA TOMBA OSCURA’ (IN THIS DARK TOMB)- Ludwig von Beethoven.
This was the heading of a chapter in one of the great Rugby books- ‘They missed the bus’- Terry McLean’s account of Ian Kirkpatrick’s 1972-73 All Blacks.
That particular chapter paints an excellent picture of the whole drama around Keith Murdoch. The writing is timeless (the whole book is). One is left with the distinct impression that Murdoch’s punch on the security guard had the weight of the entire All Black team and perhaps even New Zealand behind it, with all the rubbish that went on from almost the second the All Blacks had set foot in Cardiff for the first occasion on the tour some weeks previously. In light of all that, perhaps we should have owed tragic old Keith a pint or two for his roundhouse swing of misplaced justice…
Here is some of what McLean says about the night in question, and of the almost-suffocating expectations of the Welsh faithful beforehand:
’the heart of every man, woman and child with the least touch of Welshness in blood and voice is entirely given over to the proposition that Wales must win this day one of her greatest victories. For the past two, three, four years she has been the champion of the four Home Unions, the champions of the Five Nations, the champion of the world. There has never been such a one as Barry John, man, him with the boot of a bloody Clydesdale; Gareth (Edwards)- ooh, you should see Gareth, his passes, he can fire them from here to Swansea, man.
…for the half-hour or so before kick-off the North Stand sang, the South Stand sang, the terraces sang, the sitters sang, the standees sang; and all, all was built up to the moment when every one of them, heartfully, fearfully, yearningly sang “My Hen Wlad Fan Dhu”, and the battle for the land of their fathers was on.
Afterwards- the silence. That was the curiosity. When Bennett missed the kick at goal that would have drawn the match, the entire Arms Park was given over to an unbelieving, a totally disbelieving speechlessness…Between larynx and lips, some projection some projection stopped the utterance of any sound. Behind, only just behind, every eye was delicately balanced a tear which at release would spring a flood…At the end, at Johnson’s last whistle, the pressing crowd all about him, Morris said, simply evaporated. Not a drum was to be heard, not a funeral note, as they carried the corpse of Welsh Rugby to the bier.
(It was all the serene calm before the storm). McLean: ‘So now I was for it. A hiss. For me. So someone really cared. God, what a tribute. Only a knighthood, or maybe 25,000 sterling annually, tax-free, could be better’.
‘Always, too, there was talk. There had to be talk. Wales had been beaten by the “worst team ever”- I don’t think that had yet quite sunk in- and the talk about why and how and wherefore had to be the emotional release for all- except of course, the New Zealanders.
And McLean had absolutely no time for the Gwent Security Service (who patrolled the Angel Hotel, and to which Peter Grant belonged, the man struck by Murdoch): ‘ One vital factor which would emerge would be, I am quite sure, the employment by the Welsh Rugby Union, or the Angel Hotel, or both, of a number of members of what was called the Gwent Security Service…No matter how much I try for detachment and objectivity, I must confess a serious fault: I regarded, and will always regard, the Gwent Security Service with detestation. Part goes back to war service during which, for no personal reason at all, since I cannot remember one of them so much as speaking to me, I cultivated a most considerable distaste for the British Army Provost Corps who wore, and were always known as, “Red Caps”. They were officious, very often vicious, and we hated their guts’.
‘The Gwent security men no doubt no doubt did a good job according to their lights. Unfortunately, if I may borrow a phrase from Liddell Hart, their lights were dim…What was going on, in and around the hotel, would have tried the wisdom of Solomon and he patience of Job. Nevertheless, the very presence of the security men was detestable and many of their actions were rude, provocative and unnecessary…Their very presence, then and again during the day and night of the Barbarians’ match, stank’. (From TP McLean’s ‘They Missed the Bus, Kirkpatrick’s All Blacks of 1972/73. Published by AH and AW Reed, 1973).
Keith Murdoch probably wouldn’t have been their favourite All Black, either.
*Wales now haven’t beaten New Zealand in a Test for sixty-five years. Just as well they don’t hold aftermatch functions at the Angel any more.