COMMENT:

It was late July 2001. We'd been in Cape Town covering the All Blacks' 12-3 test victory and had landed in Sydney to catch our connecting flight home.

Photographer Ross Land took a phone call which changed those plans and diverted us to a coroner's hearing in the Northern Territory, where reclusive All Black Keith Murdoch had been summonsed to give evidence into the death of a young Aboriginal.

We had to overnight in Sydney before flying to Alice Springs, then transferring to a smaller aircraft which took us to Tennant Creek, an unremarkable outback town with several thousand residents and transients who worked, drank and enjoyed life in the shadows.

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One of those drifters was Murdoch, who made unwanted headlines in 1972 when he was sent home from the All Blacks tour of the UK for punching a Welsh security guard, then hopped off the plane in Darwin and disappeared into the Australian outback.

He preferred sustained anonymity, but nearly 30 years later, Murdoch was in the limelight once more. He'd caught Kumanjai Limerick breaking into his house several times and someone had given the petty criminal a thumping, then driven him to the outskirts of town and left him to walk home.

Limerick never made it. He became dehydrated, and three weeks later, his body was discovered at the bottom of the Nobles Nob opencut gold mine.

Disgraced former All Black Keith Murdoch relaxes at the pub in 2001. Photo / Tennant Creek District Times
Disgraced former All Black Keith Murdoch relaxes at the pub in 2001. Photo / Tennant Creek District Times

NT coroner Greg Kavanagh wanted to hear Murdoch's version of events but neither he nor his assistant John Tippett made much headway as the burly witness gave a mixture of brief, terse and murky responses.

He didn't want to engage and during the lunch break, screwed up a faxed offer of $50,000 for an interview with a rugby magazine, telling police he was too old to peel back history and wanted his solitude rather than any nest-egg.

A police car had dropped Murdoch off at the rear of the courthouse for our first glimpse of a muscular, deeply tanned man in his late 50s clad in blue shorts and shirt and well-worn jandals.

His grey beard matched his hair and when he took the stand, Murdoch held an unrelenting gaze on his interrogators as his gruff answers whistled through the absence of his top front teeth.

He wanted to be anywhere else and wasn't going to be bullied into anything he didn't want to reveal.

We learned Murdoch kept to himself and lived in a bungalow on the main street for most of the year without much work, while he was a regular at the local pubs.

Booze and anonymity were staple ingredients for many in the area and the liquor store did a roaring business on dole day when cheques were exchanged for cases of beer which squeezed neatly through a gap in the mesh security grille.

It was a tough town but it suited Murdoch. Nobody bothered him, no one knew his history and he could fill in his days without any hassle until one night, alcohol and a repeat burglar brought him back into the limelight he had shunned.