Anton Oliver

Last updated 10:30 18/05/2008
Sharron Bennett
Anton Oliver decided his heart wasn't in professional rugby any more.

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THE SUN is blaring down on Toulon and Anton Oliver's tanned skin. No small achievement this, for a fellow who's just strung together two consecutive winters. Even the south of France gets chilly when the Mistral blows.

When he arrived in October, having signed off his All Blacks career at the Rugby World Cup and signed up to play for an ambitious French second division side with a fat chequebook, the plan was to immerse himself in a different culture, learn the lingo, stay for perhaps two years a kind of belated sporting OE. But OEs don't always pan out the way you hope and Oliver says the last six months "have made me realise that professional rugby has lost all meaning to me now that I'm not playing for the All Blacks".

With top-of-the-table Toulon poised to make the French first division in the coming season, Oliver would stand to make "an obscene amount of money" if he stuck around. The club's owned and underwritten by local multimillionaire Mourad Boudjellal, whose French comic-book empire recently signed a mammoth deal with American giant Marvel for English-version distribution rights. Says Oliver, "If I came back, it would be the most I have ever earned, by several streets but that's all I would be playing for, the money, and if I did that I think I might lose something of myself that would be possibly irretrievable."

Rugby as moral prostitution? It's not the kind of talk that's spouted by his former All Black colleagues, the mercenary army now either playing overseas, set to play overseas or, in the case of Daniel Carter and Jerry Collins, rumoured to be on the verge of autographing a contract to do the same. And though forthright, he's not judging them, he insists. "Everyone's different. I'm solely talking about my own make-up, my own motivations."

Truth be told, Oliver has felt secretly disenchanted by the vacuity of his trade for several years, but stuck it out for the surge of identity, honour and connection that came from performing the haka, singing the anthem, representing the All Blacks: the intermittent hits in a sea of training boredom inevitable at his age, 32 and the perpetual tide of meetings and camps that, he says, left little room for anything else substantial in his life. An all-or-nothing character, he gave his all to the code and by choice, bien sur. But the move to another country, one to which he felt no such soul-stirring connection, has proved the death-knell for his 13-year professional career.

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"It's been kinda like being on Apollo 13 for eight months," he chuckles. "I haven't truly enjoyed my time here in France, but the distance and dislocation has given me clarity, and in that sense it's been a very worthwhile experience. It's allowed me to assess my own values and beliefs, reinforcing some, questioning others."

Which is why he's now making the surprise U-turn from highly paid hooker (a one-year overseas contract thought to be worth upwards of $600,000 before tax) to cash-poor conservation student, having been accepted into Oxford University to read for an MSc in biodiversity, conservation and management: a year-long, postgraduate course that will see him researching seabird conservation in Fiji's outlying Ringgolds Islands for a dissertation, before holing up in his college room for another grey northern winter.

"I was interested in the paper because of issues that I've been involved with in New Zealand," explains Oliver, who's patron of the Yellow-Eyed Penguin Trust (the world's scarcest penguin) and a vocal objector to Meridian's Project Hayes wind farm in Central Otago, which he says will cause "unconscionable" damage to tussock uplands and heritage gold trail sites for low returns to the public.

"I mean, it's very concerning to hear that Foreign Affairs and Trade has received a $600 million budget advance, yet DoC, with its ever-increasing land holdings, actually took a budget cut! It's been directed to trim $8 million, 3% of its budget, in the next three years. In time I can see DoC being decentralised, losing its strength and independence and becoming nothing more than a collection of smaller entities at the whim of government policy. Is this how little New Zealanders value their land? Do we disrespect it that much?"


THAT'S THE kind of thing that gets his jersey in a twist. In his team-issue apartment, a sterile place he calls "the butter conditioner", avid reading and National Radio podcasts have been his intellectual and spiritual lifebuoy. Well abreast of the issues back home, he verily starts to steam when it comes to the hot topic of the emerging Emissions Trading Scheme mess.

"The current climate change frenzy resembles very closely the economic shock doctrines employed in South America in the 70s and 80s," he says, with the same kind of steely appraisal you imagine he would have exacted on the Springboks' front row (though possibly not too many other rugby forwards read Naomi Klein). "Russia in the 90s and America's failed attempt at privatising and liberalising Iraq were the same: economic, political and social upheaval occurred with breathtaking speed, damaging haste the justification being some sort of perceived crisis. With the current carbon shock, some of the most outrageous acts of ecological villainy are occurring right under our own noses.

"The general public has been sold an ideology that just doesn't stack up under constructive analysis particularly the idea that we urgently need all these industrial wind farms. First and second-generation biofuels supposedly the great alternative to petrol have already been outed internationally as causing more damage than good to the environment. The same is true of certain modes of wind energy. Scale and rational planning are important factors, but they're being ignored in a wind rush that has little to do with genuine environmental or energy concerns and everything to do with economic imperatives. The government isn't intervening because it stands to collect millions of dollars' worth of carbon credits to sell on the international market.

"The debate is so dreadfully one-sided, because critics of industrial wind energy are fighting an orchestrated, green-coloured though I don't think it's green underneath moral ideology. One which seems to have the general populace nodding their collective heads in compliance, zombie-like, that all turbines are good."

He labels our state-owned enterprises (of which Meridian Energy is the largest) a national disgrace. "A few weeks ago I read that the Green Party had uncovered a report hidden by Meridian which said the negative impacts of a proposed dam on the West Coast couldn't be `avoided, remedied or mitigated' as required by the RMA so they simply buried the findings. And another story of Solid Energy spying on protesters exercising their democratic right.

"Just who are these organisations working for? I thought they were supposed to be ultimately accountable to us as taxpayers, but it seems to me that they're all willing to externalise our natural environment, and the impact that has on the lives of New Zealanders, for profit. And that makes me very mad."


WHICH IS why he's off to get some academic credibility in the environmental field from one of the world's most rigorous universities undoubtedly stirred up by condescending pot-shots from former Meridian CEO Keith Turner that Oliver was "a very good rugby player, but didn't know much about wind energy". "That's tantamount to saying the RMA process is a joke because members of the public can't understand the issues," Oliver retorts.

He'll become the first former All Black to study at Oxford since David Kirk, who took up a Rhodes Scholarship after lifting the 1987 Rugby World Cup, and Chris Laidlaw before him. But Oliver is well past the age criteria for Rhodes honours and worried that his "mixed bag" of grades in the two degrees he has already put to his name Bachelors of Physical Education and Commerce (majoring in finance), both from the University of Otago, when he was juggling textbooks with training would muddy his application.

"Actually I never dreamed I would get in," he offers candidly. "I mean, I was hopeful and all, but getting accepted into Oxford requires more than hope." So he was gratified to receive feedback that it wasn't his rugby cred that sealed his place chez the dreaming spires, but the dissertation proposal that had filled in many of the blank evening hours in his butter conditioner.

"Basically I'm going to be looking at conservation and biodiversity values through the prism of poverty, as part of the research programme run by a couple of Fijian NGOs [non-government organisations Birdlife International and Nature Fiji]," says Oliver, who'll head to the remote Ringgolds archipelago after finishing his Toulon contract in June.

"I'll be collecting data on the attitudes of a subsistence community to their tribal land, which happens to hold a high biodiversity and conservation value. Do they recognise that value? In a modern society like New Zealand, usually conservation is clouded with a lot of other issues like economic and political imperatives that get in the way of core conservation values, but in the Ringgolds it's stripped down to a very basic level: how does poverty affect conservation, and vice versa?"

He was busy putting together costings and funding proposals for the month-long field trip "Yep, welcome to the real world" mindful that he'll spend the best part of the next two years as an overseas student without an income, longer if he decides to charge on to a doctorate. Rugby, tedious as it might have become, has permitted him such a luxury. He won't be selling his second-hand size 14 footie boots just yet, though.

"I'll be playing for Oxford, which is amateur and, as such, I think a wonderful way to finish my career because it means it's come full circle. I started at the Otago University club in Dunedin as an 18-year-old in 1994, before professionalism came in, and now, after all these years I don't really like to count them! here I am back playing as an amateur, with other amateurs. It just feels like the right way to say goodbye."

And then? "I know I want to dedicate the rest of my life to advocating and working for the environment and for the society that I belong to," says Oliver, "and it will be in New Zealand. I quite fancy the idea of doing a PhD back here. I've missed being connected to a place, to a landscape that helps me understand and define who I am. I once read a wonderful quote by an American poet, Gary Snyder, that went, `Find your place on the planet. Dig in, and take responsibility from there'. Well, that place for me is Aotearoa and that's where I want to dig in and make my contribution."

- Sunday Star Times

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