Late Frank Oliver was big in stature and heart

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.
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.

Indestructible and full of life, Frank Oliver's death has left the rugby community in a state of shock.

The former All Blacks lock and mighty figure of Manawatu rugby died suddenly at home in Palmerston North on Sunday at the age of 65.

Tributes flowed yesterday for a player known for the size of his heart rather than his physique during 43 matches for the All Blacks including 17 tests between 1976 and 1981.

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

''He was really healthy and working up until the day he died,'' he said, adding Frank would normally have risen at 5am Monday morning to go to work at the sawmill near Palmerston North. ''It was a big surprise. He was still full of life, wasn't sick and had plenty of years left in him.''

Like many All Blacks of his generation, Oliver was most famous for being part of the Grand Slam winning 1978 side and he notably captained the side in three tests earlier that season against Australia and again during the midweek tour match against London Counties.

Regular All Blacks captain of the day Graham Mourie said he'd remember the size of Oliver's heart rather than his physique. 

''Frank was a significant part of that [1978] team. He wasn't the biggest man but he was as tough as they came really. In those days, the size of the bloke wasn't the be all and end all and he was a very, very hard man,'' Mourie said.

''Off the field, he was what you'd expect. He was straight down the middle. There was no beating about the bush with what Frank said and if you didn't agree with it then he was more than happy to enter into a debate as well. He was a bloody good tourist.''

Oliver Sr had three well known rugby playing sons in James, former All Blacks hooker Anton, and Brent, a loose forward with the Central Vikings in 1997. Frank and Anton are the only father and son to have led the All Blacks.

Oliver coached Manawatu in 1995-96, the Vikings, a hybrid of Manawatu and Hawke's Bay in 1998-99, and was the Hurricanes inaugural coach from 1996 to 1999 before taking the Blues for a season in 2001.

Former Hurricanes midfielder Jason O'Halloran said his former mentor had played as a tight forward but been an expansive thinker as a coach.

He traced the Hurricanes trademark back play to the side's formation years under Oliver and assistant Graeme Taylor, who had given players ntsGlike ntesuch as Christian Cullen and Tana Umaga license to thrill.

''Frank had an amazing ability to get [lock] Mark Cooksley to play like Superman,'' O'Halloran said.

Oliver's feats during 54 matches for Manawatu are legendary including his part in winning the national championship in 1980.

Another former All Blacks lock and Manawatu teammate, Sam Strahan, said he had always seen Oliver as ''indestructible''.

''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.''


Leicester Rutledge regards his long-time Southland team-mate Frank Oliver as the best leader of men and says opposition teams were in fear of him.

The rugged lock played 17 games for the All Blacks from 1976 to 1981 and played 64 games for Southland from 1969 to 1978 before he shifted to Otago and then Manawatu.

He was originally from South Otago but shifted south as a youngster to join the Invercargill police.

Rutledge was one of those who was shocked when he received a call on Monday night to say Oliver had died suddenly.

"I played freezing works rugby with Frank, I played most of my Southland rugby with Frank and I played all of my All Black rugby with Frank.

"He was obviously an outstanding rugby player and probably the best leader I played under. He was a very good leader of men.

"But I think the thing that really stood out for me with Frank is I remember coming into the Southland team as a young guy and he really looked after those young guys, he basically taught us the ropes on and off the field. Off the field was a lot of fun with Frank, we had some great times," he said.

Rutledge said he could write a book with all the tales of his times with Oliver but most probably it wouldn't be fit for print.

The two were team-mates in the 1978 All Blacks' Grand Slam tour and Rutledge said the opposition took a backward step when it come to Oliver.

"In '78 he was playing probably some of the best rugby he ever played. He was certainly feared among the opposition, they couldn't believe how strong he was for his size. He had total respect from everyone right around the world."

He also carried the enforcer tag right through his 64 games for Southland, Rutledge said.

"I remember one game against Canterbury, him and Grizz [Wylie] were always at loggerheads on the paddock and poor old Fergie [McCormick] poked his nose in this time and got a short, sharp right.

"He was up against the goal posts at the Supporters' Club end [of Rugby Park] and I could slowly see his knees sinking to the ground and Frank standing over top of him."

During Oliver's time in Southland he played his club rugby for Marist, joining as a teenager. He made an immediate impression.

Jeremy Winders recalls his late father Bert - who coached Oliver at Marist - telling him he knew Frank would become an All Black from the very early days of coaching him.

"I remember Dad telling me he was only a kid from the sticks when he came onto the scene with Marist and Bert said he was one of the toughest rugby players he ever coached."

Alan Blackler played with Oliver, coached him and played against him during the fierce Star-Marist rivalries of the 1970s.

"He was hard but fair. I remember playing for Star against him and I was at the bottom of a ruck and I saw this foot coming . . . and it stopped about a foot away. He said 'you, you little bugger, get out of there'."

Manawatu Turbos rugby coach Jason O'Halloran credits much of the Hurricanes free-running reputation to the coaching of Frank Oliver.

O'Halloran served his first four years with the Hurricanes under Oliver's orbit. Oliver death caught O'Halloran, like everyone, by surprise.

''He seemed as fit as a fiddle.''

O'Halloran called Oliver a fantastic guy and said he brought out the best in the players in those pioneering days with the then Wellington Hurricanes.

''He was a tight forward who oversaw a team which played with width.''

Since then the Hurricanes' signature has been one of exciting back play and it can be tracked back to the original years from 1996 when Oliver and Graeme Taylor were coaching the franchise team.

They had also been a pair when they coached the Central Vikings hybrid of Manawatu and Hawke's Bay players in 1998-99, concurrently with the Hurricanes who Oliver coached from 1996 to 1999.

''Of course he had pride in fronting physically up front,'' O'Halloran said.

But he recalled how backs thrived too, the Hurricanes giving Christian Cullen the vehicle to go on to great things and doing a good job with nurturing Tana Umaga, another future All Black captain, as Oliver had been.

''He was a hard bugger but was always aware of where the players were in terms of energy levels,'' O'Halloran said.

''He was a great guy to have at the helm.''  

While he had the teak exterior, there was also compassion towards the players, O'Halloran said.

And if he bawled out a player it was one on one, not in front of the team.

His personal relationships with players, especially the bigger men, often did the trick and a prime example was giant Wellington lock Mark Cooksley, one of the biggest players to wear the All Black jersey.

''Frank had an amazing ability to get Mark Cooksley to play like Superman.''  

O'Halloran summed it by saying he left Oliver's greatest legacy was in terms of his sons.

There was All Black hooker Anton, tough but very intelligent. O'Halloran is more familiar with his Manawatu No 8 James, who has similar intellectual characteristics and "works his guts out on the field''.

Anton's brother, Brent, played under Frank for the Vikings in 1997 on loan from Harlequins in Wellington.  

Manawatu Rugby Union board member Terry Clare was a prop from Feilding in the same Manawatu forward pack during their heydays in the early 1980s.

Clare called him a great player and one who everyone preferred to have on their side rather than playing against them.

''He was that hard a player. If you really wanted the ball they would throw it to him; he was so reliable and consistent.

''If you wanted somebody beside you whe you were playing a tough game, he was the man.''    

Because of his attiude he was well respected by his team-mates, Clare said.

And he also excelled in working out opposing sides and coming up with the right tactics.

Clare had been in the Manawatu team for two years before Oliver shifted allegiance from Otago to Manawatu in 1980.

''He was a huge gain.

''There was quite a bit of steel in the pack anyway but he added more.''

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

He was shocked when he heard the 1976 to 1981 All Black had died in his sleep at home in Palmerston North on Monday.

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

''Terribly shocked is my first reaction.''

Strahan played against Oliver when Oliver was a young lock in Southland. And when he 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.

''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 listened,'' Fisher said.


Frank Oliver's former Manawatu coach Graham Hamer, in his 18th year living in Tauranga, yesterday remembered the first time he spoke to the All Black lock.

It was after a test match in Auckland in 1979 and Oliver's future brother-in-law Mark Donaldson was calling.

He immediately passed the phone over to Oliver. ''In that gruff voice he said, 'Frank Oliver here. What's the chance I can come and play for your team?

''I'm thinking of coming down to live there'.''  

Hamer, somewhat taken aback, said, ''Come down and have a go Frank''.

When Oliver turned up to his first training run in Palmerston North in 1980, Hamer said everyone got a ''hell of a shock''.  

He was an experienced All Black by then. ''The guy had so much experience and even in 1980 I was still a young coach,'' Hamer recalled.

Oliver fitted snugly into a younger team with the Ranfurly Shield having been filched by North Auckland in 1978 and All Black locks like John Callesen and John Loveday had retired.

''If it wasn't for Frank, and Mark Donaldson, we wouldn't have had so much success in those four years,'' Hamer said.

''Playing those 54 games, Frank had considerable influence on Manawatu rugby.

''He was one of those guys you respected because of his leadership qualities.''  

He was tough but offered a fatherly hand to young future All Blacks like Mark Finlay and Craig Wickes, although they had to learn quickly.

Oliver captained the Manawatu team which toured to Hawaii and California for four games in 1983.

In Hamer's last year in Palmerston North in 1995, he was on the coaching committee which appointed Oliver as the Manawatu representative coach.

Manawatu historian Clive Akers echoed Hamer's sentiments about Oliver's worth to Manawatu.

Akers watched most of Oliver's 54 games in the green and white.

''He had a big part in Manawatu winning that first-division championship in 1980.''

Since his death many have suggested he was part of the Ranfurly Shield era, but he didn't arrive in Manawatu until two years after that.

As Akers pointed out, Oliver played in a challenge for Southland against Manawatu in 1977.

''Frank was one of the coaches from the old school. He called a spade a spade.''

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