Anton Oliver: Taking a career twist

After a disastrous stint in France with Toulon, former New Zealand hooker Anton Oliver turned his back on the professional game for a new life at Oxford University - and he's loving every minute!
Click to follow
The Independent Online

He's unemployed, has no income and his only mode of transport he very dubiously describes as a bike.

He shares a house with six others, his room is tiny and he calls his bed probably the best form of contraception you would ever find. No woman, he reasons, would ever stay the night once she took one look at his room and that bed.

Rewind 12 months to Anton Oliver's life with wealthy French rugby club Toulon. The former All Black hooker was living in an appartment beside the Mediterranean, he drove a luxury car and he was busy tasting the delights of foie gras and fine wines. He was, as he puts it, among people with all the accoutrements for a very good life.

Then came the bombshell that changed his life. Toulon made him a financial offer to stay for another year which simply astounded him. It was in the region of Euros 250,000-300,000 for a single season. Net. Oliver puts it like this: "My mother is a nurse and I worked out that she would have to work for several years to earn that kind of income."

It was a huge decision to make and Oliver was still mulling it over as he left with Toulon for a brief training camp somewhere out in the country near Dax, close to the Pyrenees, back in January. He had a problem. He loathed life at Toulon. The club was a shambles, the standard of rugby was poor (Toulon were still in Division 2 at that time) and he alleges, even to this day, the club still owes him a few thousand Euros in unpaid salary. He admits: "I was desperately unhappy."

The facilities at the training camp were dire and depression settled over this esteemed New Zealand rugby player. Until one morning at the camp, when he opened his computer to find an e-mail from Oxford University. He had been accepted for a one-year course, to do an MSc in bio domestic conservation management at Worcester College.

"I hadn't enjoyed my time at Toulon at all. In fact, it had been thoroughly unpleasant until I suddenly got that message from Oxford and then all the clouds went away," he says.

Thus the former All Blacks hooker turned his back on a whopping pay bonanza and chose a year at Oxford, for whom he will play in next month'sVarsity match at Twickenham.

So at 33, Oliver is a student again, wobbling around Oxford on his rusting old bike, cycling through the rain to training just as he had as a 15-year-old back home in Blenheim, on the northern tip of New Zealand's beautiful south island where his extraordinary rugby journey began.

Today, his world consists of an intimidatingly large pile of books, his two guitars and just enough money to feed a hungry young man. Memories of foie gras, slick cars and bulging wage packets are gone. And you know what? Oliver says: "I can't remember being this happy for God knows how long. You can't put a price on your happiness."

The truth is, he went through years of unhappiness, long unbroken spells of deep cloud before emerging into the sunlight of an English autumn at Oxford. "I had been really unhappy in New Zealand for three or four years so it wasn't just one year of unhappiness at Toulon. It was a cumulative process since 2003.

"I was happy playing for New Zealand, that was why I stayed," he says. "But there was a big trade off. All my friends had left Dunedin, there were a lot of new guys and it just wasn't the same for me any more. So the depths of despair I was in, in France, just capped it off and I couldn't face anymore of it. When Oxford came along as a serious option, I just grabbed it. But I was going to put a line through the rugby because my experience at Toulon had been so unpleasant."

He was persuaded by some friends who had been to Cambridge to change his mind and make himself available for the Blues team. And now as a graduate, Oliver is embracing the Oxford culture. He's fascinated by even the simple things in life, like chatting casually to fellow students and discovering what subjects they're studying and learning about their backgrounds. "What people are doing here is simply astounding," he says. He loves, too, diving into pubs that are hundreds of years older than his own country (1840 was the Treaty of Waitangi, which established New Zealand) and he's deeply into the history of the place.

The Varsity match? "It will be a wonderful experience, a game that

has a lot of history. The boys are very keen and there is lots of pride, particularly among the Brits. The international guys have come in cold, as it were. We are trying to do our best but we don't have the same connection with the whole Oxbridge thing."

Oliver sees his role as a quiet adviser, when asked. He's anxious not to pile in with a 'this is the way we do it' sort of approach. "It's a difficult path to tread; I don't want to come across as a know-all. But when you see some things that you know could be fixed it's difficult to hold back. But you must go through the coach or the captain, who has a lot of power in this Oxford set-up."

He's already had plenty of fun along the way, like when the Oxford manager and coach had to flag down a series of taxis to get their players to a ground for a game on a pre-season tour in Vancouver, Canada. "I thought that was incredible, I'd never known anything like it," he says. "Coming from the All Blacks and the supreme level of organisation, it was a wonderful refresher into the other side of rugby."

Oliver jokes that he was desperate to get to Oxford so that he could pack up playing professional rugby. It's true, he has given sterling service to the professional game: 14 years with Otago, 12 years with the Highlanders and 12 years with the All Blacks. But this is no formulaic, cauliflower-eared front row citizen whose horizons extend only as far as a pack of rugby forwards.

Oliver is the thinking bloke's rugby man. He managed to acquire degrees in Finance and Physical Education during his own playing career but he concedes his concern at a rugby world devoid of the brainy young men who once represented universities like Oxford and Cambridge and then went on to become respected doctors, lawyers, academics, leaders in finance and such like.

As he puts it: "All that has gone now, you don't have the opportunity to do that anymore. And I think that the player at the end of it, although he will be richer in rugby experience, will be the poorer as a person overall. But it was always going to happen once rugby went professional.

"You are not going to get any more All Blacks who are Rhodes scholars in the future. My feeling is that if you are reasonably intelligent and you have got an inquiring mind, a professional rugby life is not enough now. It's a very uncertain path because of all sorts of things like injuries that you can't control.

"Fine, if a young man is a good player and feels he wants to have a go, I'd say 'OK, give it your best'. But weigh up your options. Because to me, the game still hasn't sorted out what it is going to do with all the 32-year-olds that will get spewed out the other end of the system, emerging without any qualifications or any real life experience.

"It was only when I applied to Oxford that I had to create a CV. I had never had a CV because I'd never had a job interview in my life."

Coming to Oxford has enabled Oliver to reflect upon his life, where he's been, what he's done and where he now wants to go.

"After Toulon, I have been trying to live my life more according to philosophies than actual goals," he says. "It's a case of just trying to be engaged in things as opposed to 'I want to do this by next May'. I am trying to follow some beliefs and philosophies and see where they take me.

"A lot of my life has been about specifically targeting goals: get fit for this Test, win this game, aim for that trophy. Now, I just try to live my life and see what comes of it. And I am so enjoying it all."

This story was sourced from International Rugby News