Anton Oliver: All-Black soldier, green warrior

The former All Black, who plays for Oxford against Cambridge today, tells Chris McGrath why his passion for rugby has been replaced by a desire to look after the planet
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The Independent Online

The grate in the college buttery is aglow, and the winter sun stoops through a casement window, spreading amber squares across his face. But the true effulgence in the room traces to Anton Oliver himself. Not because he happens to be one of the front-row titans, capped 59 times by the All Blacks, but because of the fires within – fires that devour all dishonesty, whether in himself or the world around him.

Today, in the Varsity Match, Oliver will link arms with 14 other Oxford students before again plunging his skull into the pitiless crucible of the scrum. At 33, his road is almost run. There might be a game for the Barbarians in the new year, and he is tickled by the prospect of turning out for his own college, perhaps at No 8 or even among the backs.

But his sense of both symmetry and vocation recognises that things have come full circle.

It is the right way to end – better than in the anguish of the All Blacks dressing room, after their World Cup defeat, and far better than the meretricious stint of club rugby that followed at Toulon. "After the fourth or fifth game, I realised my rugby raison d'etre had died," he said. "I remember with great clarity the moment I had to take the Toulon jersey off the peg, just three weeks after we'd lost to France. All these logos and colours – they weren't connected to me at all. Rugby has to mean something to you. Being an All Black enabled me to explore my sense of national identity. I'm not denying I was an egotistical little prick, earlier on. But that's what it became, and you can't swap that."

After that traumatic discovery, a Blue comes as an edifying epilogue. But it has nothing to do with Oliver being in Oxford. He is only here because of the mud-brick cottage he bought in Otago, seven years ago. "It's in an old Welsh mining gully, and pretty historic," Oliver said. "Historic in New Zealand terms, anyway: 1880s." He takes in his present surroundings with a self-deprecatory grin.

As an adolescent, Oliver worked on a highland sheep station. "We mustered on horseback, lived off a generator, went shooting, all of that," he recalled.

"So I didn't come into it cold. But it was only after I got this cottage that I became politically active. You know, I don't really like things that are new. They've got nothing really to teach me. And funnily enough, all my friends out there are about 60."

They include poets, painters, farmers, blokes in the pub. Oliver became zealously protective of the world they shared. And, a year ago, in the depths of his Toulon disenchantment, he thought of that happier wilderness, and recognised what he truly cherished in life.

He had already joined a campaign against a gargantuan wind farm, an army of 160-metre turbines marching over the ancient landscape. Not even green politics, it turns out, is black and white. "Wind energy is being sold with green ideology, because it doesn't produce CO2," he said. "But I would contend it's just swapping one form of environmental desecration for another. These are fragile, tussock uplands, hundreds of tons of soil that are not going to be replaced – all because of a 'wind rush' for carbon credits."

It is quickly apparent that Oxford did not offer him a course in biodiversity and conservation because of his rugby CV. In the old days, Blues were lampooned as future estate managers, reading land economy. But Oliver's cerebral, passionate grasp of the crisis of earth and economy keeps him exactly where he has always been, on the pitch – at the sharp end.

He began, during the summer, camping on a coral atoll in Fiji, researching the contradictory imperatives of subsistence communities and global conservation. "The world's least polluted places still have indigenous populations," he said. "Unfortunately most of their needs are diametrically opposed to what we would consider good conservation. It's a classic conflict. But how can you tell people what to do with the islands where their ancestors are buried? If we can't sort ourselves out, it's hard to make demands of people who have nothing."

His first term at Oxford, cycling between libraries and training, has been a blur. He adores the conviction of younger students, albeit it sometimes seems more like credulity. "In any discussion about our environment – about population, say, or deforestation – the driving model is eventually economic growth," he said. "We're not going to deal with main causes, until we see how prudent that model is; what it has done, in fact, to get into this situation; and the hubris of believing that it can now get us out.

"Otherwise we're just dousing little fires. We have to re-examine what the good life is. The gross domestic product is a very crude way for society to define a good existence. Is, in fact, living a good life being happy? Or working only so many hours a week, and spending more time with your kids? Or growing your garden? And I think what's really got to shake things up is this implosion in the financial markets. I think we can see that if you don't cage the free market beast, it will go as water does – it will find a way."

Some say science will gallop over the horizon on its white charger, but Oliver is sceptical. "Science is a cumulative process," he explains. "We now know more than we did, say, 100 years ago. Through trial and error, discussion and debate, the discipline has advanced. The same cannot be said of the human species. After 3,000 years we are still fighting wars, some of them illegal. We are still enslaving one another, torturing, incarcerating without due process. Some say we will change our ways, because we must. I say everything in our history says we are incapable of doing so. The human species, unlike science, has proven itself a recidivist offender."

Crikey. On the whole, would you not rather be trampling props in the south of France, for a fat monthly cheque? Does Oliver get depressed by his studies? "No," he declares, grinning. "Because the natural world's eternally interesting. I was looking at a dung beetle the other day. You know, without dung beetles we'd all be in the crap. Quite literally. Anyway, if you lose hope, what are you going to be? One has to be cheerful, just brew a cup of tea and maybe have a good scone."

He has a less playful version, too. "I talk of hope because, without it, the prospect of a bright future fades," he said. "So do law and order, and the constructs of a civil society. Without hope, in a few short hops, we have anarchy."

Hence his evangelism, and aspirations for a PhD next. "You have to make sure your powder's dry," he said. "I'm an easy target. People will say: 'Who do you think you are? You played for your country, and now you think you can tell us what we've got to do.' Especially rugby." He gives a comical grunt. Reminded that front-row forwards, in particular, are best known for using the outside of their heads, he nods: "Yeah, front row, as well. I'm ticking a lot of single-cell neurone boxes here."

Hardly, and some day he will duly find some teaching or public role back home. "Based on what I've done with a black jumper on, I've probably got the most traction there," he reasoned. "And it's the place I'm most concerned about, because it's my home. There's not that much wrong with being a 'Nimby'. If more of us were concerned about our surroundings, we'd all be a little bit better off. Trying to find someone who actually gives a damn is quite difficult."

Here, certainly, is a man who can make a difference. It is curious to think of him watching the All Blacks beat England the other day – in a pub, with a couple of mates who could not get tickets. Perhaps, gradually, those who saw him there will come to know Oliver, not just as a rugby giant, but as a prophet of the perils facing every hemisphere.

In the meantime, his example is already disarming. "Sisyphus was destined to toil for eternity," he said. "But then a scholar examined his situation and asked: what if actually Sisyphus liked rolling the stone? Doesn't he now have a lifetime of enjoyment?

"The stone in your life is whatever you want it to be. It all fits in with my sport, because no one forced me to put my shoes on and go running, it was all me. So it's about what you want to do.

"And if I turned my back on a lot of this stuff, I don't think I could look at myself in the mirror. It's a bit like back at Toulon. You look yourself in the mirror, and you know. I could still be playing, for lots of money. But I knew.

"This game means a lot to the guys on my team. And, knowing there's no money involved, you can look round the circle and think: 'Yeah, this is quite pure'. It's going to be really good. It's the reason why I came back to play, to finish the way I started."

Green giants?

David James

In the last couple of years, the Portsmouth goalkeeper has emerged as the green voice of Premier League footballers. James encourages recycling, grows his own vegetables, has converted his car to run on rapeseed oil, and has recently set up the David James Foundation for sustainable agriculture in Malawi.

Honda Formula 1 team

In 2007 the Honda team launched a radically designed car, replacing the sponsors slogans with an image of the earth on a sea of blue, in order to draw attention to the problems facing the planet.

Justin Rose

The 2007 European No 1 has committed to a scheme that carbon offsets all the travel he makes, plus that of his caddy, coach and fitness trainer.

Oxford v Cambridge: A brief history

* The Varsity match is the annual meeting between Cambridge and Oxford universities. The game was traditionally held on the second Tuesday in December, although this changed last year to the second Thursday.

* The first game took place at The Parks in Oxford in February 1872, the home side prevailing one goal to nil. The following year's game was played in Cambridge, with venues alternating year on year, before the match was moved to a neutral venue in London in 1877.

* Various venues in the capital hosted the event, including The Oval in Kennington and the Rectory Field in Blackheath. In 1921 the game took place at Twickenham for the first time, where the event has stayed since.

* Matches played in 1878 and 1879 had to be abandoned due to fog, while similar problems affected the 1919 meeting.

* A number of internationals played in Varsity games early in their careers. Stuart Barnes, Phil de Glanville, Joe Roff and Gareth Rees all represented Oxford, while luminaries to have sported the Cambridge shirt include Rob Andrew, Gavin Hastings and Mike Gibson.

* Varsity games also take place in other sports, from football and cricket to ice hockey and polo, as well as the Boat Race.

* "Being selected for the Varsity Match is like an international selection"

Rob Andrew, England

* "That's probably one of the most exciting matches I have been in. The blood pressure's gone through the ceiling."

Joe Roff, Australia

* "That first Varsity match was a great thrill. There were present and future internationals playing, Rob Andrew, Fran Clough, Mark Bailey, Kevin Simms and we won 32-6."

Gavin Hastings, Scotland

* "My memories are of the noise as we ran onto the field. Apart from that and the scores, the game was over in a flash."

Mansell Heslip, London Irish

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Cambridge hold the edge in the Varsity matches, winning just under half the 125 games.

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