Key Points:

Actor Michael Lawrence is drawing on his own sporting background to interpret the role of former All Black Keith Murdoch.

Lawrence plays the lead part in a reworked version of a play about one of New Zealand rugby's most controversial chapters.

Murdoch was sent home from the 1972-3 tour of Britain, Ireland and France for punching a Cardiff hotel security guard hours after scoring the All Blacks' only try in a 19-16 win over Wales.

The prop avoided the waiting media in New Zealand by getting off in Australia, where he has since lived in self-imposed exile and kept as much as possible out of the spotlight.

The incident is the background for former journalist Margot McRae's play Finding Murdoch, which is about to have a three-week run at Auckland's Maidment Theatre.

A number of All Blacks from that tour, including winger Bryan Williams, flanker Alistair Scown and prop Graham Whiting, are expected to attend the opening night on Thursday.

Lawrence, 47, played senior rugby league for Auckland club City-Newton in his 20s, and was in the second row for a season with Kiwi Dean Lonergan.

During his league days, he said, he came across players with a similar persona to Murdoch, in that they were mostly quiet and difficult to get close to, but could also clown around.

"What we found out in our research about Murdoch was that he did play up a bit, but he never really caused any major trouble," he said.

"He got egged on by others, but he was also a guy the team liked having around."

Lawrence, whose research included talking to Williams, said he could remember bits and pieces about Murdoch's sending home.

"I do vaguely," he said.

"I'll never forget that photo of him with his bag at Heathrow airport."

He said the play doesn't reach a conclusion about exactly what happened at the Angel Hotel in Cardiff.

"But the conclusion I come to is that Murdoch was hard done by," he said.

"Considering the antics rugby players get up to these days, it's a tragedy he got treated that way."

Lawrence admitted to having mixed feelings about playing Murdoch.

"It's ironic in the sense that he just wanted to be left alone and we're doing a play about him," he said.

"But I don't think it's something that will be put to rest. It's one of the biggest tragedies of All Black rugby."

Central to the storyline is McRae's successful search for Murdoch in 1990, when she was working on the television series Mud and Glory.

In a minor quirk, Lawrence is the same age as Murdoch was when McRae located Murdoch in rural Queensland and was able to speak to him for about 45 minutes, although only off camera.

Finding Murdoch was first mounted at Wellington's Downstage Theatre last year.

McRae said she had made improvements for the Auckland production, directed by Paul Gittins.

The other main cast member is Sarah Somerville, who plays a reporter who tracks down Murdoch, although McRae insisted the play was not autobiographical.

"No, I made up the character," she said. "She's very hard-nosed and ruthless."

McRae viewed Murdoch's refusal to talk publicly about what happened to him as heroic, and contrasted that with the actions of participants in modern-day reality television.

She would definitely like to invite him to the play, "if I could find out where he is".


* Finding Murdoch, Maidment Theatre, 8 Alfred St, Auckland, June 26-July 19