Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Frank Oliver - One of the hard men of All Blacks rugby

Lynn McConnell began his sports journalism career in Frank Oliver's last days in Southland but that was plenty of time to observe the legend in action. He pens some memories on the occasion of Oliver's death, aged 65, in Palmerston North on Monday.

It's ironic that hard man Frank Oliver's type was symbolic of rugby's amateur era yet he played a key role in the game when it went professional as a coach.

He was the first coach of the Hurricanes and while his time as a coach never reached the greatest heights, his reputation as a player was always likely to be his longest legacy. His death in Palmerston North on Monday took the rugby world by surprise.

Oliver, 65, came out of Southland, a policeman, hence the nickname 'Filth', as a young player who quickly made his mark as a tough nut. All Blacks status was hard won from the deep south and Oliver had to serve his apprenticeship in first-class play for seven seasons before finally being welcomed into the highest levels of the game.

It was in 1976, the year he made his Test debut in the fourth Test against South Africa, that his reputation as a player not to get on the wrong side of was obvious.

Ireland were touring New Zealand just before the All Blacks were to head off for a tour of South Africa. After a tough match against Canterbury, the Irish flew into Invercargill for their last game before the only Test of the tour.

The Irish were determined not to be pushed around after their Canterbury game so at the first hint of trouble the famed '99' call was to go up when everyone would rush into the resulting melee.

The game was only a few minutes old when all hell broke loose on the field between the Irish and Southland. Players ran from everywhere to get involved but, as a classic sequence of photos taken at the time show, the only person not involved in the fight was Oliver. He was pictured standing looking for someone to hit but the Irish had done their homework and no-one was prepared to take him on.

Stories abound of scrummaging problems on the following South African tour and when they involved front rowers the story was that a gap would open up between the hooker and prop on Oliver's side of the scrum and he would be given the room to dispense the sort of justice understood only by those in the front five.

In his final season with Southland, in 1977, the provincial team was on a four-match tour of the North Island, the second game of which was a Ranfurly Shield challenge against Manawatu. Oliver was flown up to join the team for that game only. At breakfast on the morning of the challenge he was at a table with Southland flanker, and future All Black, Leicester Rutledge who had broken a rib on the Saturday previous against Wellington.

Rutledge was telling Oliver that he could play despite the pain and Oliver told him that he was silly to attempt to play. He could do himself real damage in playing with a broken rib and he shouldn't play. Oliver had his way.

But three months later on the All Blacks tour of France after the side had been hammered in the first Test by the French, Oliver took part in the marvellous second Test where coach Jack Gleeson and captain Graham Mourie worked out a plan to run the French off their feet. It involved Oliver and Andy Haden taking part in a series of short lineouts which flummoxed the French allowing New Zealand one of the great victories of the era, all of it played by Oliver with a broken rib!

In that same 1977 season, Southland hosted Canterbury at Rugby Park and with time running out an assault on the Canterbury line looked like producing a match-winning try for 16 stone Southland centre Wayne Boynton. He was goal-line bound when corner-flagging Canterbury No.8, Alex 'Grizz' Wyllie in desperation flung out a stiff arm which felled Boynton as if he had been poleaxed.

Coming across from the lineout that had preceded the action Oliver began winding up the only retribution he knew from way back and hit Wyllie square with the most superb punch. The Rock of Amberley's knees shook and he needed to find a goal post to lean on but he refused to go down. There was never a hint of Oliver being sent off on his home midden. That was how business got done in the days before television surveillance. Southland goal-kicker Brian McKechnie landed the penalty goal, but in denying Southland a six-point chance, Wyllie had ensured Southland still lost the game.
Wyllie went looking for Oliver from the re-start but never caught up with him.

In 1978, Oliver had transferred to Otago and it was from there that he was awarded the All Blacks captaincy when Mourie was injured and unable to play and he led the side to Bledisloe Cup success.

Oliver played 17 Tests for the All Blacks, a number cut short after a back injury suffered against France in the first home Test of 1979, and 43 games in total and made 57 appearances for Southland from 1969-77, eight for Otago in 1978-79 and 54 for Manawatu.