Obituary: Former All Black captain Frank Oliver

Last updated 10:39 18/03/2014
Fairfax NZ

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

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The most brilliant, pithy pre-match instructions ever given to the All Blacks came from Frank Oliver in 1978.

Captaining the All Blacks against Australia he and his forwards had seethed in the first test in Wellington as the Wallabies poured in the dirt, and the All Blacks, under fierce orders from coach Jack Gleeson, did not retaliate.

In the shed at Lancaster Park before the second test Oliver gathered his forwards around him. "Right, I've had a talk to Jack," he said. "I'm slipping the leash on you boys."

The All Blacks stormed onto the field, and battered the Wallabies 22-6.

Oliver, who died on Sunday aged 65, played 42 times for the All Blacks, including 17 tests, from 1976 to 1981.

He offered sure hands at the front of the lineout, and steely strength from his work as a bush contractor around the field. His presence alone was sometimes enough to intimidate an opponent.

In 1979 he was being marked at an All Black trial in Pukekohe by Mike McCool, a lock from Wairarapa new to higher levels.

After being shoved out of a couple of lineouts McCool waited until a long throw was called, took no notice of the ball, and hit Oliver so hard with a straight right the smack (I am not making this up) could be heard in the stand.

Oliver didn't hit back, or flinch, or even look at McCool. After the game I spoke with Oliver, and mentioned that he didn't seem to have done anything after McCool hit him. Oliver smiled. "No. But he was looking over his shoulder the rest of the game wasn't he?"

When he arrived in the All Blacks Oliver was 27, already so renowned for his toughness that in an early provincial game on the '76 tour of South Africa former captain Ian Kirkpatrick came to him to sort out a massive, thuggish South African who was making life a misery at the back of the lineout.

"I tracked this guy for a while," Oliver told me a few years later, "and when I got the chance I let him have one over his shoulder. If I say so myself it wasn't a bad shot. But bugger me the bloke did a forward roll, bounced back to his feet and kept running. I went to Kirky and said, 'He's all yours mate.'"

For a man who never flinched when the going got brutal, it's an oddity that the most famous moment Oliver was ever involved in as an All Black was the dive he and Andy Haden took from a lineout in 1978 in Cardiff, our own rugby version of the underarm bowl.

From the resulting penalty Brian McKechnie kicked a penalty goal, to give the All Blacks the victory, 13-12. Andy Haden has said he's never regretted the action, because it won the game.

I interviewed Oliver about it in 2006, and I'm not sure he was so relaxed about what happened. He went to the lineout carrying some guilt, having cost the All Blacks three of the 12 points Wales had scored. "I belted their No. 7, Ringer, gave him a snot and got penalised for that."

So did the Welsh lock Geoff Wheel actually shove Oliver hard enough to push him out of the lineout?

There was a pause on the end of the phone. "He was a very big powerful man." Oliver laughed.  "He was a strong bugger." He laughed again. "That's all I am saying."

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After his top level playing days were over Oliver played club rugby for Palmerston North Marist. On their website they say young forwards in the side had an armchair ride. Frank would make it clear to opponents anyone who belted a newcomer would answer to him.

The words Fergie McCormick once said of Grizz Wyllie apply perfectly to Frank Oliver, "he was a terrible bugger to play against, but a great man if he was on your side."

* Francis James Oliver, born December 24, 1948. Died March 16, 2014.

- Fairfax Media

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