Shock death of former All Black captain

PETER LAMPP
Last updated 11:03 18/03/2014
Fairfax NZ

One of rugby's hard men, former All Blacks captain Frank Oliver, has passed away aged 65.

Frank Oliver
MARTIN HUNTER
LEGEND: Then Hurricanes coach Frank Oliver walks the sideline as the Hurricanes win their first Super 12 game against the Bulls in Palmerston North in 1999.

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One of the rugged men of Manawatu and All Blacks rugby, Frank Oliver, has died suddenly at home in Palmerston North aged 65.

It came as a shock yesterday within the Manawatu community, where Oliver had lived for 34 years, because he was considered almost indestructible in his playing days.

Oliver played 43 matches for the All Blacks including 17 tests.

'HE WORKED UP UNTIL THE DAY HE DIED' - SON

Oliver's son and Manawatu loose forward James had been working with his father on Sunday on a property James had bought.

''We're really surprised and pretty shocked at finding out,'' James said.

''He was really healthy and working up until the day he died.''

Each morning he would rise at 5am, but not so yesterday morning.

Frank Oliver worked every day at his sawmilll near Palmerston North.

''It was a big surprise,'' James said.

''He was still full of life, wasn't sick and had plenty of years left in him.''

He said his father closely followed Manawatu rugby and James' fortunes with the Varsity side.

James added his father's death left a big hole because Frank was someone he saw every day.

The cause of death is not yet known.

Funeral arrangements have not yet been made, James said.

RUGBY COMMUNITY MOURNS

Another former All Black lock from Manawatu, Sam Strahan, said the late Frank Oliver always seemed indestructible.

He was shocked this morning when he heard the 1976 to 1980 All Black had died in his sleep at home in Palmerston North yesterday.

Strahan said it was hard coming to terms with the fact such a strong, powerful man was no longer living.

''Terribly shocked is my first reaction.''

Strahan first encountered Oliver when he was a young lock in Southland playing against Manawatu. And when Oliver came to Manawatu in 1980, he became a key man in Manawatu's successful era of the time.

''I had a huge amount of respect for Frank as a rugby player because he wasn't one of the biggest locks in the world; but he was one of the tougher and better ones.''

John Fisher, now the Manawatu Rugby Union president, played his first senior club rugby season with Oliver at Palmerston North Marist and played for him when he was a club championship-winning coach and with him for Manawatu.

In the days when rugby was played hard, having a tough man like Oliver in the pack was a godsend.

''You relied on people like Frank. You could get out and do what you had to do without any retribution.''

Being such a physical man was why people like Fisher were shocked at his death at the age of 65.

Fisher has always rated Oliver as the best player he saw close up and a better athlete than people gave him credit for.

Fisher pointed to his technical appreciation, of lineouts, scrummaging and work around the field.

''The best thing Frank did was coach me in my last year in the club team.

''He brought real clarity to everything.

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''When he was on the field he was enormously influential which was unusual for a guy who was a tight forward. He was his own man; everybody deferred to Frank when he was in the team, including Gary Knight and Mark Shaw.

''At the end of the day it came back to Frank.''

Fisher admired him because he was rugby smart, kept his own counsel and never thought of complicating things. He wasn't out of the scientific coaching genre, not fussed with too much analysis.

''When he was playing he was a good coach; everybody sort of listened,'' Fisher said.

STELLAR CAREER

Oliver's debut test was at Johannesburg in 1976 and his last test was against the Springboks at Wellington in 1981.

He captained the All Blacks in three tests in the 1978 home series against Australia when Graham Mourie was injured.

In more recent times he was a coach of the Hurricanes from 1996 to 1999 (45 games) and the Blues in 2001. Until the end of last season his rugby interest centred around watching his son James playing for Massey University and the Manawatu Turbos. Another son, Anton, was an All Black hooker between 1996 and 2007.

Until his death, Frank was still running his sawmill business just outside Palmerston North adjacent to Massey University.

He always said he "liked the logs" after having been a logging contractor in the forests around the lower North Island.

Dunedin-born, Oliver's career started in Southland with Invercargill Marist. He played 64 games for Southland in 1976-77, eight for Otago from the Tokomairiro club in 1978-79, and 54 for Manawatu from 1980 to 1983 from Palmerston North Marist, retiring from the game aged 34.

After captaining a World XV in South Africa in 1979, he shifted to Palmerston North where his brother-in-law and fellow All Black Mark Donaldson was playing for Manawatu.

He was a key cog when Manawatu won the national championships in 1980.

He was a hard-nosed player, with a reputation as an enforcer and possessed a colourful turn of phrase. He proved to be an astute coach after working for the Manawatu Rugby Union as a coaching co-ordinator, then as a staff coach for the New Zealand Rugby Union and as New Zealand under 19s coach in 1993-94.

After coaching in the grades for Marist, he took over the Marist seniors with Bill Gleeson and won the Hankins Shield in 1992.

Oliver was soon employed as the Manawatu representative coach in 1995-96, but even under his guidance they couldn't escape the second division.

When the Manawatu and Hawke's Bay teams merged to form the controversial Central Vikings for the 1997-98 seasons, Oliver coached them to win the second division in his second season.

One of his philosophies was if one of his teams suffered a heavy loss, the same XV was sent out the next week to put it right.

FACTBOX

Name: Francis "Frank" Oliver

Date of birth: 24 December 1948

Place of birth: Dunedin

School: Lawrence District High

Test debut: 18 September 1976, v South Africa in Johannesburg (lost 15-14)

Test stats: 17 caps, 4 points (1976-1981)

Provincial stats (1969-1983): Southland 64 caps, Otago 8 caps, Manawatu 54 caps

Coaching: Manawatu (1995-1996), Central Vikings (1998-1999), Hurricanes (1996-1999), Blues (2001)

- Manawatu Standard

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