Oliver set to answer big questions for modern All Blacks

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The Independent Online

The team photographs, dozens of them, adorn one long wall of the conference room at the New Zealand Rugby Union headquarters, and they could be said to represent the biggest rogues' gallery outside Scotland Yard. There are some real beauties here: Kevin Skinner, Colin Meads, Grizz Wyllie, Keith Murdoch, Cowboy Shaw and Buck Shelford are among the more infamous lens-crackers. Frank Oliver is there too, and Frank could mix it with the best of them. When the All Blacks pillaged their way through Britain and Ireland on the Grand Slam tour of 1978, Oliver was undisputed master of the dark arts.

"Dad doesn't follow rugby like he used to," confessed Oliver's son, Anton, who wins his 40th cap at hooker against England today. "He's generally too busy working up in the bush. He watches when I'm playing, but the moment I get subbed off the field he finishes his beer and heads for the door. The game has changed so much since he was an All Black, and I think he's a little disillusioned with it these days."

Oliver Snr, a granite-faced lock forward who played 17 Tests for his country and represented Southland and Otago before switching islands for a spell with Manawatu, coached at a high level after retirement. According to Oliver Jnr, he found the political in-fighting too much to bear and walked away. But there is also a strong suspicion that Frank's exasperation with the state of 21st-century rugby has much to do with a slow but inexorable sanitisation of the sport. In other words, he believes union has gone soft.

Which is an accusation frequently levelled at the current All Black pack, not least by the cognoscenti of the northern hemisphere. The heavyweight units of the modern game are not to be found in New Zealand or Australia - or even in South Africa, who used to field forwards the size of game parks - but in England and France, and most European observers detect a southern vulnerability ripe for exploitation. England's strong-armed dominance over an impotent Maori side in New Plymouth on Monday was a case in point. Rugby may have changed, but not so much that a team can win a game without the ball.

Being a chip off the old block - "Anton has plenty of his dad's pepper about him, don't you worry," said one member of the All Black party this week - the younger Oliver is not one of life's shrinking violets. He is as tough as any New Zealand forward of his generation. Raised in the school of hard knocks, with his father as headmaster, he made his provincial debut for Marlborough as a 17-year-old. The boy could look after himself, for sure, and when he was appointed captain of his country in 2001 - Frank had been similarly honoured 23 years previously - a whiff of gunpowder had finally been restored to the silver-ferned armoury.

But Oliver Jnr suffered a serious Achilles tendon injury during the 2002 Super 12 tournament, and kissed goodbye to a year of international rugby; indeed, he was not at all sure he would regain his place for this Test, despite a run of hot performances with the Otago Highlanders.

"My friend and flatmate, Simon Maling, took a bad-news call from John Mitchell [the All Black coach], telling him he hadn't made the squad," Oliver recalled. "Simon phoned me and said: 'Anton, if he doesn't get in touch, you're fine'. Then the phone went again, and it was Mitch. He began by saying: 'I think I owe you this call', words that had me fearing the worst. As it turned out, he wanted to tell me that while I'd been picked, I wouldn't be captain. That was fine by me, after all the injury problems. As soon as I put the phone down, I went out for a euphoric run. Not that the euphoria lasted very long. You don't run far in Wellington without hitting a hill."

The big question, then. Do the All Black forwards still have their nasty streak, or have they gone pacifist on us? Oliver did not quite regard the enquiry as a personal insult, but there was a definite narrowing of the eyes. "There's a misconception here," he replied, quietly, "and I think it comes from the fact that the All Black back division has been so outstanding in recent seasons. When you have people like Cullen and Umaga and Mehrtens and Spencer doing their thing, and Jonah Lomu too, obviously, people don't waste much time looking at the forwards.

"There's another factor. In Super 12, the scrum has definitely evolved as a way of re-starting the game, rather than winning it, so there's no point hammering away in the front row when some wing is running with the ball 50 metres away.

"But none of this means we've lost our edge as a forward pack. Look, the English forwards are big, as big as any in the world, and bigger than most; they're certainly bigger than us, and when you have blokes of that size and that strength at your disposal, I guess it's pretty natural that the scrum should become a focal point of their style of play. But this is nothing new; traditionally, All Black packs haven't been that huge. They've been fit, though, and they've had plenty of gas. It's all very well being big, but is it possible to stay that big for the full 80 minutes? That's the issue."

As the long-term successor to the great Sean Fitzpatrick, Oliver's responsibility is heavy indeed. The All Blacks have generally been pre-eminent in the hooking department - Catley, Hemi, Young, McLeod, Norton and Dalton preceded the Fitzmeister as the world's best - and they expect their number one No 2 to step up to the mark. Oliver has been criticised for some scratchy line-out work down the years - "It's funny how the jumpers get the credit when the line-out goes well, but the thrower cops it when things go wrong," he complained - but by and large, the New Zealand public have given him their blessing.

"I'm 27 now, I've been involved with the All Blacks for a fair chunk of my sporting life, and like anyone else, I've changed over that period of time," Oliver said. "All Black status means different things to me now. But I'm grateful to be involved still, and I want to enjoy the moments I'm given. This Test against England will be special, I reckon, not because this is the first step along the road to the World Cup, but because they're the top side around and they play here so rarely. They're the mother country, aren't they? I can't wait to lace up my boots and get stuck into them."

Frank Oliver used to think along similar lines, and for all his disillusionment he must at least be happy in the knowledge that his boy is among the principal keepers of the age-old All Black flame. It is a quarter of a century since Frank made his only appearance against England, finishing on the winning side, naturally, and while he may not recognise much about the modern game, there will be something very familiar about Anton's performance today. Always assuming he watches it.