Profile of Anton Oliver : new All Black skipper
by Huw Turner
May 20, 2001

In a recent interview with Scrum, All Black coach Wayne Smith acknowledged that his first squad of the season, announced in Dunedin on Sunday, would be chosen with the 2003 World Cup in mind.

Anton Oliver is by some distance New Zealand's best hooker, its only world class forward at present, a man who, injuries permitting, will still be lining up in the famous black jersey in two years' time.

It is probable that Smith had earmarked Oliver as the likely successor to incumbent Todd Blackadder, but the unexpected collapse of the Cantabrians' recent Super 12 form must have come as a shock and no doubt brought forward the time when Oliver took on the skipper's mantle. At Sunday's Dunedin press conference Oliver admitted to surprise, and to being faced by a daunting task, paying his respects to his successor by conceding that when he found himself in future difficulty he would undoubtedly look to his old friend for guidance.

Since Sean Fitzpatrick's retirement in 1997, New Zealand has struggled to find a captain who could command universal respect for his playing and leadership qualities. Justin Marshall was tried during the UK tour at the end of 1997, then quickly discarded ; Taine Randell's uneasy tenure came apart at the seams with New Zealand's exit from the 1999 World Cup, his fiercest critics condemning him for the lack of physical courage they felt the All Black forwards had shown in defeat ; Todd Blackadder's leadership credentials were never questioned, but there was always the nagging doubt that he was not amongst the best available locks and would not always be able to command an automatic place in the starting XV.

It may be accidental that New Zealand has again entrusted the captaincy to the man in the no2 jersey, but there are good historical reasons for doing so. As we all know , Fitzpatrick led the All Blacks for 5 years and in 51 tests. In the 1980s Andy Dalton was in charge for 4 years and 17 tests and Tane Norton was skipper when the All Blacks played the Lions in a four-test series in 1977.

Since making his All Black debut against Eastern Province at Port Elizabeth in 1996, and his test debut a year later in Albany against Fiji, the 25 year old Oliver has appeared in 29 tests. His father is 2001 Auckland Blues' coach Frank Oliver, a granite-hard All Black lock and himself skipper for 3 tests in 1978, and he has a brother and two uncles who also played representative rugby. A precocious talent, he made his first-class debut as a 17 year old and went on to captain New Zealand at under 19 level, where he formed a front row partnership for the first time with Kees Meeuws and Carl Hoeft. This partnership carried through to NPC play with Otago, Super 12 with the Highlanders and test football for the All Blacks.

A good scrummager and a dynamic runner in broken play, Oliver has all the credentials to become a successful All Black skipper. Well-educated , thoughtful and articulate , his leadership will be based on the ability to be able to involve himself in all the hard graft required of a tight forward whilst having a clear understanding of the wider strategic needs of his team. In the 18 months since the last World Cup not only has he consolidated his All Black place , but also developed into a world-class hooker who will be at his peak at the time of the next World Cup.

For what it is worth, Oliver's promotion will be welcomed by journalists who cover rugby in New Zealand . Whether on provincial or test match duty, Oliver is always good value. He has an independent mind , is not afraid to give his point of view, even if it strays away from the official line, and is mercifully free of the banalities and clich├ęs which deaden so many interviews.

In the early days of the Wayne Smith era in June 2000, a time when there was a degree of euphoria in New Zealand on the back of its fifth successive Super 12 title , Oliver gave me an interview in which he advised caution. Let's wait and see was the message, there is a long season still ahead of us, we are only in the preliminary stages of achieving what we would like to achieve as a side, the new coach is unproven at this level. This was not disloyalty , simply Oliver's ability to articulate what he was thinking without resorting to the easy or apparently obvious. Ask him a decent question and he will give a detailed and interesting answer. On the other hand, questioned in the moments after the Highlanders' recent Super 12 victory over the Crusaders in Dunedin he admitted that his side had not given a 'stuff ' about the bonus point which would have vastly improved their chances of squeezing in for another semi final appearance. He was honest enough to suggest that finishing in the top four was not that big a deal, that there were bigger battles ahead.

Starting, no doubt, with the three tests in June and the Tri Nations series that follows. International success is crucial to Wayne Smith and the All Blacks after New Zealand's Super 12 failure. Tri Nations / Bledisloe Cup triumphs on the back of convincing All Black form will more than compensate. If that happens, then Anton Oliver will have well and truly established himself as All Black skipper.

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