Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

Wynne Gray: Oliver uncomplicated on the field and in life

Frank Oliver took on John Kirwan as his assistant to coach the Blues in 2001. The year before, Oliver and Gordon 
Hunter were in charge.  Photo / Paul Estcourt
Frank Oliver took on John Kirwan as his assistant to coach the Blues in 2001. The year before, Oliver and Gordon Hunter were in charge. Photo / Paul Estcourt

Discussions spread to the back bar at the Settlers Hotel in Whangarei.

All sorts of rugby types turned up to discuss theories about the game at provincial and national level. Among the throng were All Black faces including Frank Oliver whose mitt enveloped a seven ounce glass.

Someone introduced us. There was a bruising handshake accompanied by a frosty stare and then a word or two.

"Have never trusted reporters too much," was the tone, "but we have to deal with them more these days so I'll give you the benefit of the doubt unless you stuff it up. Then you're toast.

"Now what are you drinking. Draught beer good enough?"

Oliver's reputation had preceded him and I was careful to offer little in the way of contrary opinion and made sure I got in early in the round. The former lock soon thawed and delivered a range of All Black tales and yarns about life as a forestry worker.

He was blunt and to the point with his colourful language and possessed strong theories about how the game was losing its physical edge.

Oliver moved from playing to coaching in Manawatu and when the game went professional in 1996, Oliver became the Hurricanes' inaugural coach. Annual conversations on the phone or in person were always lively and Oliver's rich language, a la Jerry Collins, meant his responses often had to be edited or paraphrased.

He was keen to play up his local-yokel image and decry the city-slickers but had to tone down that act when he was appointed to help Gordon Hunter coach the Blues in 2000. It was an unusual alliance and more of the work fell to Oliver as Hunter battled through his ongoing treatment for cancer.

They were reappointed for the next season before Hunter had to step aside about the time the campaign opened.

Oliver stepped up with John Kirwan as his assistant in a season where the Blues ended with seven defeats and four wins and both coaches shown the door.

Occasionally you would see Oliver where he would deliver his views about the softer edge to the national game. As he eased out of the limelight, sons Anton, Mark and James were more visible at provincial and international levels.

A few years ago we ran into each other on the Coromandel.

Oliver looked the same but his bowed knee and limp appeared more troublesome although his thirst had not wavered.

We shared a few memories, shot the breeze on the direction of the game and how it was getting more difficult to comprehend. It was a ruddy, uncomplicated conversation, just as Frank Oliver played his rugby. He was 65.

•Former referee John Pring who controlled all four All Blacks-Lions test in 1971 has died after a lengthy battle with his health.

Pring refereed for 40 years as he juggled training with his day job as a manager with the ASB Bank. He remembered the '71 series as his sporting highlight.

"The fact that the Lions chose me for all four tests was an incredible build-up - a great honour. It just didn't happen in those days - you might do one test here, and one there," he said.

"I felt the tests went really well. I had refereed a lot of countries, but I found this Lions side to be one of the most professional I had seen - with Dawes as captain, and an outstanding manager, Doug Smith."

- NZ Herald

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Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

The latest commentary and analysis from senior rugby writer Wynne Gray. Wynne has been covering the All Blacks for more than 27 years and has attended more than 230 All Blacks tests live for the Herald.

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